The “Most Memorable Year” theme episode of “Dancing With The Stars” is always a guaranteed tearjerker, but it works better in some seasons than others. This is one of those years where it comes together into a genuinely moving experience.
The contestants overall picked unexpected years — Simone Biles, for example, did not pick last year when she became America’s all-time most decorated Olympic gymnast — and many gave us startlingly deep glimpses into their interior lives…
…Although of course, there were the exceptions. Nick Viall had his best dance yet, now that he’s finally settled down and started dancing at his (still somewhat impressive) skill level. Partner Peta Murgatroyd rooted the choreography in their rumba directly in Viall’s past experiences on “The Bachelor,” which gave it some resonance — but “finally getting engaged on a reality show after much effort” can’t ultimately deliver that much emotional satisfaction, when it comes to memorable years — even if he did totally mack on his fiancée Vanessa at the end…
We’re pretty open about being ride-or-die for Erika Jayne — even if she kicked a puppy, she’d look flawless to us while doing it, and we’ve accepted that about ourselves — but this week, once again, she just couldn’t click with the judges or the non-“Housewives” audience. Her backstory is about moving to New York in 1989 to break into the entertainment industry, and her own mother talks about Erika having to claw her way to the top: These are not the optics the “DWTS” audience is feeling.
Which might still be okay if her dancing was stellar, but it’s not. Her cha cha to “Express Yourself” was good, but it needed to be next level. She could totally have a turnaround/redemption moment by coming out next week and dancing really elegantly — suppressing her own personality — but clearly that’s not going to happen, and that’s okay. God bless partner Gleb Savchenko and host Erin Andrews, because at least they they get Erika Jayne, and celebrate her. Still, it’s not going to be a shocker if she goes home next week, and we’ve got to respect her unwillingness to compromise who she is for a broader audience.
Heather Morris is still dancing flawlessly, almost to a fault, thanks to her extensive background. Remembering how she met her husband on MySpace was incredibly cute, but she’s already hampered by the fact that she’s perceived as a ringer and now has partnering difficulties on top of that: Maks Chmerkovskiy is still her official partner, even though he’s been out with an injury for a few weeks. Troupe dancer Alan Bersten has filled in ably, and even choreographed this week’s adorable cha cha routine.
We’re sure there’s some kind of contractual obligation that makes it so Maks is still officially her partner even though we’re not sure when he’s coming back into the competition — when Derek Hough broke his toe in season 20, he continued to be Nastia Liukin’s official partner even though Sasha Farber filled in for him for several weeks just up until Liukin’s elimination — but Heather is suffering from the vague chaos around having two dance partners. She’s already too dang good: Lacking a solid partnership storyline isn’t helping her stand out.
What we can say is that the chemistry with Alan this week was adorable — so here’s hoping they lean on that more in the future.
Mr. T is the flip side of Heather Morris. He’s not ever going to be a dancer, really, but his game was elevated big time this week by how much he connected to his routine. Partner Kym Herjavec took his story of finding renewed faith in the wake of a cancer diagnosis in 1995, and used it to inspire a simple but stunning waltz to “Amazing Grace.”
Though Mr. T. lacked the rise and fall the dance demands, he brought real heart — and a surprising amount of musicality. The judges lavished him with praise, and with 7s across the board, which was probably still high based on content alone: It came as no surprise at the end of the episode, then, that he ended up going home. It is so, so nice that he got to go out on a high note.
Note that our critiques so far aren’t actually all that critical: “Good at dancing but a little boring” is not a terrible thing to be, in general.
But this week, we really started to separate the wheat from the chaff as some celebrities tapped into the really compelling parts of their narrative which, coupled with great dances, gave us a surprising amount of feelings.
Fifth Harmony singer Normani Kordei has been really dazzling-right-along, even with her grueling tour schedule. This week, her fellow girl group members showed up to give her a hand, singing their song “Impossible” as Normani and partner Val Chmerkovskiy danced a beautiful rumba.
We’ve seen already Normani is an incredible dancer — but part of what makes her a standout is how emotionally connected she is to each week’s routine. That empathy and compassion clearly carries through to all areas of her life: Even her choice of 2012 as her most memorable year wasn’t related to fame or success as much as it was to meeting the other members of Fifth Harmony. Watching her bandmates’ pride in her, and how much strength she draws from them, is pretty beautiful — and makes us want to start a badass girl group of our own.
Nancy Kerrigan has had many years of incredible personal and career success — she could have talked about winning gold medals, and it would have had emotional heft.
But she really opened up about her personal life instead, revealing 1996 as her most memorable year not just because she became a mother, but because it would also set off years of heartbreak — she went on to have six miscarriages over the next eight years, before having success with IVF and having two more children. Kerrigan is so incredibly open about the feelings of shame and guilt that women often have when they miscarry, and talking about how difficult it is not to feel like a failure — especially when you’re a competitive person.
She broke our hearts with her raw honesty about fighting to have a family, and then healed them again with her genuinely hopeful foxtrot with Artem Chigvintsev. The way the camera work augmented the gorgeously sweeping choreography was incredibly powerful.
David Ross did pick a memorable year in his career — but when you win the World Series with the Chicago Cubs, that is totally allowed. His choice of 2016 isn’t just about baseball, though — before the season even started, he’d decided it would be his last, so he could spend more time with his family. As he puts it: “I’ve gotten to live my dream, and my job now is to be a dad and be there for my kids, so they can live their dream.”
It’s clear he’s still part of the Cubs family: When a rain delay stalled their home opener, they played David and partner Lindsay Arnold’s dance live on the video board at Wrigley Field! His Viennese waltz (set to “Forever Young,” one of his walkup songs with the Cubs) didn’t let him rely on the quirky, goofball humor he’s already become known for — it was nice to see a different side to him. It was also nice to see a different side of Len, who decided to speak Ross’ language and judge him with baseball signals. We’d love to know what that translates to!
Rashad Jennings proved once again this week that he’s not just a talented athlete but is also an exceptional human being. In 2006, he gave up a full-ride scholarship to a Division I football school, in order to help care for his father, who’d a stroke and lost a leg to diabetes. Even though he hadn’t always had the best relationship with his father, and though his parents and the media thought he was crazy to give up on an opportunity like that — it wasn’t even a question for Rashad, and he says that’s how he began to learn about unconditional love.
His contemporary dance with partner Emma Slater is so evocative and lyrical that even judge Bruno Tonioli can’t say anything gross to ruin it. Practically collapsing while hugging his dad in the audience at the end made made just about everyone in the room start weeping. Even the cats.
The tears didn’t end there. Simone Biles picked the year 2000 as her most memorable year, because it was the year her grandparents adopted her. Her mother struggled with addiction, and Simone remembers being hungry and afraid as a child, but also knowing she had no one to go to. She was taken briefly into foster care at age 3 before her grandparents adopted Simone and her younger sister.
Watching the video package before the dance clearly made Simone emotional: From the start of her routine she was openly weeping, even as she smiled brightly. And that wave of emotion clicked the missing piece into place: This season she’s been technically excellent, but it’s been hard to connect with her until now.
And then it’s all just compounded when Tom Bergeron brings her weeping grandparents (whom she calls Mom and Dad) on stage as she gets her scores. Simone brought us to such an emotional place we’re still not able to cope with it today, despite eating ice cream for breakfast and replaying her Viennese waltz with partner Sasha Farber on a constant loop. If she can continue to tap into this kind of emotion going forward, it’s going to be even more amazing watching her grow.
The show ends on Bonner Bolton, who has been kind of frustratingly enigmatic. He has such an, “Aww, shucks, I’m just a super nice cowboy,” thing going on — but there’s obviously a lot more beneath the surface. A tremendous amount of personal strength, for starters: The fact that he can walk at all after his career-ending accident is amazing, much less the fact that it’s only been a year and now he’s learning how to dance on TV. When he lets down his guard in rehearsals, you can see how much he is still grieving despite his rather mild-mannered persona. There’s depth here, and now is the time to show it.
The opening of Bonner’s fox trot, where he faces an image of his old self is kind of cringeworthy in its corniness, and the song choice of “Feeling Good” for his foxtrot with Sharna Burgess is a little bewildering, but there’s still something compelling that makes you want to watch him. If he can have a breakthrough moment in the next few weeks, his transformation will truly be one to watch.
All in all, this week’s “Dancing” was startlingly authentic. For once, the “Most Memorable Year” conceit didn’t feed into tired character tropes — but instead got us genuinely invested in the dancers, as people. We can’t wait to see what next week has in store for us.
“Dancing With the Stars” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.