Season 23 of "Dancing with the Stars" opens with a helicopter shot over Griffith Park Observatory that zooms in to reveal dancers on the top exterior levels of the building. Nice to see that 23 seasons in, they're still throwing some good production money at the show. Although, I will be mighty disappointed if no one makes an observatory/stars joke.
It really is a cool number and set piece. One thing is how prominent Cheryl Burke is in several points. I like that they're making a big deal about her return.
The number ends and we go live to the ballroom where Tom Bergeron is surrounded by audience members. Don't hurt the Bergeron!
Marilu Henner & Derek Hough
Marilu's done Broadway and even hosted PBS's "America's Ballroom Challenge." She also has "highly superior autobiographical memory." So, let's see, she's danced professionally, is familiar with dancing lingo and should have no problem memorizing choreography. AND she's partnered with Derek Hough. Can you say "ringer"?
Although! Now that they're dancing I'm reassessing that opinion. She seems stiff and a little awkward. Huh. Like, they've had weeks to rehearse this and Derek is doing 80 percent of the dancing while Marilu is clearly struggling.
I think they've moved the judges table to the opposite side of the ballroom from where it was last year. Or am I imagining things? Tom explains that with four judges again this season (Julianne Hough is back, along with stalwarts Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba) all four judges will speak for this first dance, but for all the other dances, only three will speak. All four will still give a score, though.
Len pronounces Marilu's dance "Full on, flat out, and fabulous." Julianne says the jive is very hard for a first dance and Marilu's footwork was sharp but her upper half was a bit stiff. Bruno says Derek gave Marilu a hard routine, especially for the first week. Carrie Ann says Marilu was in control and didn't miss a step. She cautions Marilu about her focus, telling her not to worry about the cameras, but to focus on her partner.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 7; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 7
James Hinchcliffe & Sharna Burgess
James, an IndyCar driver, survived a horrific crash on the track in Indianapolis practicing for the Indy 500. The car hit the wall and caught fire. Part of the reason he wants to do the show is to have fun and prove that laughter is the best medicine. He and Sharna get goofy in rehearsal footage and he seems likeable.
He's doing a good job in this waltz, mostly avoiding pancake hands and doing the lean back in his frame that a lot of the amateur guys seems to struggle with. Also he's in head-to-toe teal (except for a white shirt) and that shows a fair amount of dedication. I have high hopes for him.
Len calls it a knockout of a routine, with a lovely mix of steps. Julianne calls it was calm, graceful, smooth and fresh. She compliments him by saying James reminds her of her Season 5 partner, Mirrorball winner and fellow IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves. Bruno says if James is as good in Latin as he is in ballroom, we're all in for a treat.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 8; Len: 8; Julianne: 7; Bruno: 8
Before going to commercial, they have Calvin Johnson and Terra Jolé standing next to each other as the season's tallest (6-foot-5) and shortest (4-foot-2) contestants. (Terra is the shortest ever on the show, and the first little person to compete on any version of the show, in any country.) She literally doesn't come up to even his waist. He seems more chagrined by it than she does. She seems like a spitfire.
Calvin Johnson & Lindsay Arnold
Calvin was an NFL wide receiver, playing his entire career with the Detroit Lions. His nickname is Megatron. Calvin's sister Erica called him out on national TV for having no rhythm, so part of the reason he's on the show is to prove his sister wrong. I approve of this motive. He also reveals he has size 15 feet. Lindsay is worried about stepping on them they're so big.
He's not bad! Lots of pep and he's smiling a super cute smile through the whole thing. Looking like you're having a good time counts a lot with me and for a lot of viewers.
Julianne says he broke the record for "brightest and most infectious smile." She says it's a long road ahead but she's impressed. Bruno dubs him "Cha-cha-tron" and assures Calvin that his rhythm is there. Carrie Ann says he lit up the whole room but he does have work to do. His lines are bigger so he has to put more effort into them.
Erin Andrews points out that she's covered Calvin's football career all the way back to when he was a college player at Georgia Tech. Erin asks him what he wants to say to his sister now and he just grins and says, "This one's for you, baby."
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 7
Maureen McCormick & Artem Chigvintsev
Maureen tells us she's 60 years old and all of us who grew up watching "The Brady Bunch" feel a swift punch to the gut. She thinks Artem is hot and she's crying after rehearsal saying she felt like she was "floating" while dancing with Artem. She's also super stoked that she just met Babyface (Kenneth Edmonds.) Hee. Who knew Marcia Brady was a Babyface fan?
This is a lucky first dance for her, since it's mostly in hold and is a kind style for an older woman. Florence Henderson is in the audience and Maureen goes over for a hug before the judges' comments. Maureen is crying again. She's an easy crier.
Bruno says the dance was beautiful. He does want Maureen to relax more, elongate her lines and smooth out her footwork. Carrie Ann loves her "vulnerability" and says emotions fuel the dance. And that sums up so much of my differences with Carrie Ann when it comes to judging. Len wants a little refinement but overall calls it enjoyable.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 6; Len: 5; Julianne: 5; Bruno: 6
Wow. Those scores are a lot lower than I thought they'd be given the comments. I find that annoying — it seems like such a letdown for the contestant.
Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds & Allison Holker
Babyface is an 11-time Grammy winner who's been producing music for over 30 years. He's also a songwriter and performer. In rehearsals, it's obvious Babyface has a little bit of a potbelly, and I find that really endearing for some reason. His partner, Allison, is back on the show after taking a season off for the birth of her second child, a son born in March.
They've gone for a big-band motif and I'm a sucker for a man in a classic tuxedo. Holker is a brunette this season. I'm not sure about this number at all. It has a weird rhythm and then there's a running up the stairs part and then a quick montage of show-off steps.
Carrie Ann says Babyface is at home in the ballroom. Len says he's got a lot of razzle dazzle even though it got a bit hectic in the middle. Julianne wants him to work on his rise and fall to avoid that hectic look.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 7
Erin's wearing a ribbon-like choker tonight. On the sidelines for Fox at Sunday's Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game, she was wearing a different choker. The dream of the '90s is alive on Erin's neck.
Amber Rose & Maksim Chmerkovskiy
Amber describes herself as a talk show host, a model and a full-time mom. But, c'mon, most of us first knew her because she was Kanye West's girlfriend for two years.
Maks shows up looking like a Soviet lumberjack. Amber tells Maks that she was an exotic dancer (AKAstripper) for 10 years. Maks says in an interview that this isn't that kind of show. Amber says in this routine she's supposed to be a princess, and she's not really that kind of girl.
They start out dancing in silhouette behind a scrim and it sure looks like she's doing moves she learned back in the days when she was dancing for tips, including one move that is highly suggestive of her performing a certain sex act. My pearls, they are clutched.
Wait, maybe that wasn't live but a video? Because in the silhouette she looked like she wasn't wearing a dress (either a bodysuit or the hint that she was naked) and now that they're on the ballroom floor, she's wearing a dress with a full, pleated skirt. I'm so confused.
Regardless, that may have been the most X-rated beginning to a foxtrot ever. The rest of the routine is fairly traditional until this moment near the end when they do a weird, slumped-over sighing move in unison. I bet Len is going to haaaate that.
Julianne starts to talk but can't be heard over a raucous audience section. Amber grins and says, "That's my family," and they quiet down. Julianne starts over says that the smiling Amber in front of the judges needs to show that in her face when she's dancing. Bruno says she has a natural grace but needs to connect her elements better. Carrie Ann calls Amber stunning and praises her incredible confidence. She wants her to trust that more during her performance. Is it a coincidence that Len was the silent judge for this routine? Given his "feud" with Maks over the years?
Scores: Carrie Ann: 6; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 6
Vanilla Ice & Witney Carson
So, here's a fun fact: "Ice Ice Baby" is three years older than Witney Carson. Have fun confronting your mortality, Rob Van Winkle. Tom tells us Rob has never seen the show. In their first meeting, Witney says she wants to win the Mirrorball and Rob asks her what that is. Hoo, boy.
Their first song is "Ice, Ice Baby" so we're at least getting that out of the way.
Witney's no dummy — the routine has a lot of choreography similar to what Rob would be familiar with from videos and brings in a lot of backup dancers at the end.
Len, predictably, says there wasn't enough cha-cha-cha in the routine. After prolonged booing from the audience, it's Julianne's turn to talk. She's having a moment of happy nostalgia but hopes for more content next week. Bruno says the cha-cha-cha was completely "disguised" by the choreography.
Erin asks Witney how old she was when the song came out and Witney says she was "in the womb." C'mon, show. Two seconds on a search engine of your choice and you could have fed Erin that information.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 5; Julianne: 7; Bruno: 7
Jana Kramer & Gleb Savchenko
Jana got her start on the show "One Tree Hill" and has gone on to have a successful country music career. Upon meeting, Gleb asks Jana if she can dance and she laughs when she says, "Not at all." She says in an interview that part of the reason she's on the show is she just separated from her husband and hopes the show will be part of her healing process. Then she goes on to describe Gleb as "so beautiful, so handsome, easy on the eyes" and says she hit the jackpot with him.
Well, I guess we know which "showmance" the producers are hoping for this season.
It's a sexy routine, with her in a slinky costume and a sultry song. It takes a while, but toward the end they get into some traditional Viennese waltz choreography.
Bruno asks them to do the routine again so he can make sure he wasn't just having an X-rated fantasy. Someone fan him. Carrie Ann says they don't need to work anymore on sexy. She compliments Jana's lines. Len says he wasn't "transported to old Vienna." Ha! Maybe a dark alley in the seedy part of town, Len?
Jana tells Erin that she was nervous and just glad to have it over. Erin's like, "Really? You wanted that to end?"
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 8 ("Some like it hot!")
Jake T. Austin & Jenna Johnson
Jake was on Disney Channel's "Wizards of Waverly Place," the Emmy-award winning children's show that launched the career of Selena Gomez, who also sang the show's theme song. Jenna's excited because she had a crush on Jake when she was younger and watching him on "Wizards." Turns out they're the same age.
This a cutesy jive and my main criticism is that, as a new pro, Jenna hasn't learned how to dance down to her partner. Like, she still needs to look like a pro, but pull back on some of the extra flourishes and moves that highlight Jake's inexperience.
Julianne says they're cute but wants Jake to work on his foot placement. Bruno praises Jake's energy but also wants him to work on his footwork. Carrie Ann points out a few missed steps and a minor lack of synchronization in some parts.
Backstage, Erin tells Jake he has purple lipstick on his nose and then reaches over and starts rubbing it off. Who says she's not ready to be a mom?
Scores: Carrie Ann: 5; Len: 6; Julianne: 5; Bruno: 6
Oooh. Is that the worst of the night so far? It didn't seem THAT bad.
Rick Perry & Emma Slater
Emma tries a Texas accent in rehearsal and it's amusing. Rick, former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, says his daughter's wedding is coming up soon so he's hoping to pick up some moves for that. Ah, Rick. Just learn a little foxtrot or basic waltz and you'll be fine.
This is some sort of Texas county fair cha-cha-cha. It's painful to watch. And makes me wish, once again, columnist Molly Ivins was still with us. I might hear her laughing from the great beyond.
Len can't even get his words together at first, he's so flummoxed. He praises Emma for lots of recognizable cha-cha-cha in the choreography. Julianne praises Rick for going full out even if it wasn't technically that good. Bruno advises him to work on his timing. They cut to his daughter in the audience and it's a perfect "My dad is embarrassing but I love him anyway" look.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 5; Len: 5; Julianne: 5; Bruno: 5
They're feeling generous — that could have earned a 4 easily.
Terra Jolé & Sasha Farber
Terra is famous for being on reality television show "Little Women: LA." She just had a baby less than a month ago! Wowzers. Sasha is a bit bowled over because he's never met a little person before. During rehearsal she's trying to take big steps to keep up with him and he's trying to take little steps to match her and they're struggling to find their happy middle.
It's a lively jive and she seems to have good stage presence.
(As an aside, Sasha is reputed to be 5-7. So that puts them at a height difference of 17 inches. Looking back at past seasons, that seems to be the biggest height difference, the nearest being 5-4 Elena Grinenko with 6-7 Clyde Drexler in Season 4 or 5-4 Cheryl Burke dancing with 6-7 Rick Fox in Season 11, both a 15-inch difference.)
Carrie Ann calls it dynamic and sultry and praises Terra's kicks and flicks. Len references her baby and says she "delivered twice in a month." Julianne calls her a firecracker, born to entertain.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 7; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 6
From what the judges were saying, I thought we'd see higher numbers.
Ryan Lochte & Cheryl Burke
Ryan Lochte is an Olympic swimmer now on the first leg of his image rehabilitation tour following that whole lying to the police and international media, leaving his teammates in the lurch incident in Rio.
Here's your hair shirt, Ryan — we've added some rhinestones. Cheryl laughs as she tells him their song is "Call Me Irresponsible." Nice one, producers. Ryan is nervous about dancing, which he's new to, and he's clearly finally feeling guilty about his behavior in Rio — or at least feeling bad as to how it affected the public perception of him.
It's a cute routine but he's GOT to work on his arms — he's doing a very weird thing with his right arm during a lot of the beginning of the routine. As they finish, Tom quips, "That's the most clothing Ryan's ever worn in competition."
Bruno says Ryan looked the part but his legs may not be quite used to dry land yet. He does say Ryan has potential and tells him to listen to Cheryl because she's a great teacher. Carrie Ann tells him he has a long way to go and is then interrupted. There's some sort of commotion in the ballroom that's not shown to us at home before the always-professional Tom throws to commercial.
(It turns out that two men wearing anti-Lochte T-shirts rushed the stage before being tackled by security guards.)
And, look, I may think Lochte acted abominably in Rio but not to the point that it requires some sort of protest action. Like, if the appropriate law enforcement agencies and sports bodies want to punish and/or sanction him and if sponsors drop him, that's enough. Leave my silly dancing show alone.
Back from commercial, Tom thanks the show's security staff and asks Cheryl and Ryan if they're OK. They both affirm they are.
Carrie Ann assures him they are only there to judge the dancing. Len says he performed to a high level.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 6; Len: 6; Julianne: 6; Bruno: 6
Laurie Hernandez & Val Chmerkovskiy
Laurie, an Olympic gymnast, is the youngest contestant this year, at 16. Val tells Laurie he feels a lot of pressure and when Laurie asks why, he tells her he's got an American treasure in his hands.
She is cute as a button and is, not surprisingly, a good dancer. She looks like she's having a blast out there. If you weren't in love with her before, I predict you will be before the season is over. They point out Laurie's mom in the crowd and she's proud and crying.
Carrie Ann says she's never seen Val so happy. She adds that she sees in Laurie a hunger to learn and doesn't think she will rely only on her gymnastics training. Len praises the authentic Latin feel to the dance (Dude, she's of Puerto Rican descent). Julianne calls it an "absolute, real cha-cha." Julianne loves Laurie's leg action but wants her to work on her hip action. Val leans in and subtly reminds Julianne that Laurie is only 16 and is an American treasure.
Scores: Carrie Ann: 8; Len: 8; Julianne: 7; Bruno: 8
James & Sharna: 31
Laurie & Val: 31
Jana & Gleb: 27
Marilu & Derek: 27
Calvin & Lindsay: 26
Kenneth (Babyface) & Allison: 26
Rob (Vanilla Ice) & Witney: 25
Terra & Sasha: 25
Amber & Maks: 24
Ryan & Cheryl: 24
Jake & Jenna: 22
Maureen & Artem: 22
Rick & Emma: 20
Nobody's going home until after second dances next week. However, my season predictions are that we're going to see Laurie and Jana in the finals, with Rick, Maureen, and Vanilla Ice as early cannon fodder. Jake, Amber, Terra and Calvin could all be vying for a "most-improved" arc. James is still a wild card to me — I want to see what he looks like with less time to learn and rehearse a routine. He's definitely, based on his strong showing tonight, one to watch. I'm also concerned about Marilu — I expected her to be way better than tonight's performance indicated. Partnered with Derek, though, she could still go far, both because he's a fan favorite and one of the better choreographers and teachers on the show.