Last September, it seemed “Dancing With the Stars” had peaked (or bottomed out, depending on your point of view) in the spectacle of must-see reality-TV trainwrecks with the sight of President Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer breaking into a rhythm challenged samba in a flouncy DayGlo blouse.
Yet Monday’s Season 29 premiere of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” (8 EDT/PDT) could somehow top this.
The opener, revealing the drastic changes needed for the COVID-19 pandemic, showcases new host (and executive producer) Tyra Banks, and a celebrity cast that includes “Tiger King” subject and animal activist Carole Baskin.
No lying, it will roar. Even the 14 other celebrity dancers – ranging from Olympic skater Johnny Weir to actress Anne Heche to Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean – are keeping their eyes on the big cat lover Baskin, 59.
“I was one of the many millions that just kind of sat with their jaws on the floor watching ‘Tiger King,’ ” Weir said last week during a “DWTS” press event. “Having lived a huge part of my life in the public eye and in the spotlight, I know how things can be twisted and made into a fantastic story. So I can’t say that I know Carole Baskin. That said, I hope I don’t cross her because she has a lot of big cats that she could sic on me.”
‘DWTS’ Season 29 cast: Netflix stars Carole Baskin, Chrishell Stause and coach Monica from ‘Cheer’
For as long as she lasts in the competition, there will be ample opportunity to get to know Baskin, who was dismayed at how the “freak show” (her words) Netflix series “Tiger King” portrayed her. She has promised to turn the powerful “DWTS” spotlight on her big-cat preservation crusade, her stated reason for participating.
But it’s a good idea to get the Baskin looks in quickly. Unlike Spicer, who enlisted a politically charged group of voters to offset his solidly bad dancing, and survived to the season’s semifinals, Baskin is far more of a wild card.
A polarizing figure, she has no guaranteed voter bloc, only the potential to make Spicer look like Fred Astaire on the dance floor.
Baskin says she grew up in a conservative Christian household where dancing was considered a sin. As an adult, she happily admits she was so boogie-averse that she and her husband declined to even sway to their wedding song, Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” because “we don’t dance.”
It’s a slow dance! It’s your wedding!
If Baskin is lowering expectations with her pregame talk, a ruse that may have included tripping in front of paparazzi while exiting the rehearsal studio, then she is truly playing three-level “DWTS” checkers.
Regardless, her leap from backing out of her own wedding twirl to attempting a dramatic dance based on Spanish bullfighting on live TV is simply intoxicating, heightened by Baskin’s big cat allure.
Baskin and the other celebrity dancers will appear in an audience-free, newly redesigned ‘DWTS’ stage, showcasing the many changes after COVID-19. The judges’ tables have been reconfigured so that each judge will be a social distanced eight feet apart.
Some other highlights to watch for:
- Despite show changes, Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli will return as judges, as will stiff-upper-lipped Brit Len Goodman. But Goodman is stuck in London due to COVID-19, so six-time mirrorball champion Derek Hough will fill in.
- Monday will mark Banks’ debut as host, and the first show without beloved, original host Tom Bergeron, who has presided over the competition since its 2005 debut. The 11-time Emmy-nominated Bergeron and co-host Erin Andrews were fired to make way for Banks.
- We know who the celebrity dancers are – Baskin, Weir, Heche, McLean, Justina Machado, Jeannie Mai, Nelly, Nev Schulman, Chrishell Stause, Monica Aldama, Kaitlyn Bristowe, Vernon Davis, Charles Oakley and Skai Jackson. But the official pairings with the pro dancers will be revealed live Monday night, in an added element of intrigue.