The people who do the dancing on "Dancing With the Stars" have their little patterns: Maksim Chmerkovskiy is a hothead, Derek Hough is a show-off, that kind of thing. But the judges have their patterns, too, as was clearly in evidence on Monday.
It was a sleepy night, especially at first, in spite of featuring the sexy Argentine tango and the samba. In fact, the first three couples all got exactly the same score. Jake Pavelka and Chelsie Hightower; Evan Lysacek and Anna Trebunskaya; and Niecy Nash and Louis Van Amstel all received 21 points.
Things did get better after that, with strong performances from Nicole Scherzinger (as usual) and Erin Andrews (as slightly less usual), modest improvement from Chad Ochocinco and interesting new hair (dark!) for Pamela Anderson. The night ended with a group swing dance where Evan again scored surprisingly low, while Nicole came out on top — as you can anticipate she'll be doing for the rest of the season.
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But for Erin and Nicole's strong sambas in the regular couples round, judge Len Goodman played the spoiler, as is becoming his grumpy specialty. He got very agitated and sharply criticized Erin's partner, Maks, for including moves where Maks’ shirt ended up getting removed. This could have been predicted up to a point: Len is a reliable critic of gimmicks that take time away from real dancing. But the yanking off of the shirt really didn't stop the dancing and seemed like a fairly tame party move in what the judges are always insisting is supposed to be a party dance. For Len to take away what appeared to be two full points just so he could pick at Maks about taking his shirt off seemed excessive.
Similarly, Len smacked Nicole and Derek around for the fact that their samba contained too much "gyrating" and didn't include the specific technical moves that he likes to see in a samba. This, too, seemed nitpicky and ungenerous, and also a little like it might be another effort to keep Nicole from turning into too much of a obvious front-runner by coming up with ways to take points from her.
Len's scolding routine over whether the dance represents a "proper" example of whatever particular dance it is has grown stale, yes, but the other judges can be just as predictable. Bruno Tonioli loves to leap out of his chair to declare the excitement and sex appeal of a performance, even if he's later going to give it only an 8 — as he did with Chad's Argentine tango. And when Bruno hesitates, you know he's going to jump up with his "10" paddle and pump his fist — as he did for Nicole's samba.
As for Carrie Ann Inaba, she didn't manage to dock anyone a point for lifts this week, which fans know is her favorite thing to do, even if the lift is unintentional. She did, however, tell Nicole that she had absolutely no constructive criticism of any kind to offer because the performance was that flawless — and then gave her a 9, which undoubtedly left Nicole and Derek to wonder just where that point might have gone or how they could have gotten it back.
Sometimes, all you can do is let it roll off your back. One guy who's admirably sanguine about the judging is Evan. He performed a samba that was clean, energetic and crisp, but the judges gave him very flimsy scores — tying him for last place in the round — insisting that his style was too "balletic" for the samba and that his feet weren't pointed correctly. Pretty skimpy evidence on which to hang the decision to give him the same scores given to Jake Pavelka, who actually tripped at the edge of the stage, but Evan didn't complain. He just resolved to move forward and work harder on Latin dances.
Sometimes, it's all you can do: work harder and try not to pay attention to the judges waving their paddles around in ways that can certainly seem more than a little arbitrary.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington