Get ready to hop back on that hot tamale train — Mary Murphy is returning to “So You Think You Can Dance” for Season 14. The news broke on Thursday (March 2) that the ballroom champion will make her triumphant return to the dance competition series — which she left in Season 11.
Since her departure, the program shuffled format and judges regularly, with the likes of Jason DeRulo and Paula Abdul taking seats next to Nigel Lythgoe as the show’s theme changed: From Season 12’s “Stage vs. Street” to Season 13’s “Next Generation” focus on child dancers.
As “So You Think You Can Dance” continued to cycle in new ideas and themes for these post-Mary Murphy episodes, a decline in ratings made itself quite evident. The initial formula that drew viewers into the show upon its series premiere in 2005 had changed so much, it felt as if those eye-catching gimmicks became more important than showcasing the wide swath of dance talent making it to the stage.
On top of all that, “SYTYCD” has steadily moved away from highlighting more obscure dance styles — remember when Russian folk dancing was a category? — with a bigger emphasis on popular dance styles: Jazz, contemporary and hip-hop come to mind. Sidelining the show’s signature variety for more commercial and acceptable styles hasn’t seemed to help the program any — each contemporary routine feels more and more like the previous one.
With Mary’s return, not only will we get the proverbial yin to Nigel’s yang — her role was a series staple for seven of the past 13 seasons — but her unique personality and attention to detail may be just what the show needs to once again find its groove. We’re not saying the program should stop cycling in celebrities as guest judges — it’s one thing that makes “SYTYCD” so great — but having experts on specific dance styles back on the judging panel is something the show desperately needs.
And we’d be remiss not to mention the similar talent shuffling that transpired on “American Idol” in its final seasons: The dynamic of its original judges — no matter how contentious things got between Simon, Randy and Paula — made the show what it was. For “SYTYCD,” the reunion of Murphy with Lythgoe is of an emotional importance that should bridge the chemistry with the contestants, with host Cat Deeley and, most ideally, with each other.
We have hopes Murphy’s return will nudge the show back into boundary-pushing territory. It’s been proven time and again that dance is a powerful art form that can change lives, inspire hope and evoke an emotional response. Keeping the subject matter safe — especially in our current cultural climate — is not the right move if the show wants to stay relevant: Mary Murphy, through all her personality and flash, has never been known to keep things safe.
Joining Nigel on that familiar panel is definitely a step in the right direction. Now it’s time for “SYTYCD” to tap into the emotional pulse of America’s dancers from all walks of life: That celebratory inclusion and exploratory acceptance is what has made the series so great in the first place: These dancers are artists — like actors, like musicians — and having the guts to share their talent, embracing the possibility of failure to give their gift to the audience… It’s where the true foundation of the series lies. Put previous gimmicks to rest and let the brilliance shine through, once more.
As the competition readies itself for another season, we have some final words of advice: Keep it simple, let the chemistry of the judges dictate the narrative — and be open to the emotion, wonder and surprise of the performances as they play out on stage. Everything else should fall into place.
“So You Think You Can Dance” Season 14 premieres this summer on FOX.