As soon as Drew Lachey made that first jump in the freestyle section of ''Dancing With the Stars,'' I knew he was going to win the judges' cards in that round. Like the judges, I had expected more from Stacy Keibler, who has been very good in what I've seen of the competition (which hasn't been much before last night. I was much more involved in the first season of ''Dancing.'') Keibler's freestyle routine on Thursday was just too safe. Lachey has no fear of audience-grabbing dance moves -- or of seeming camp, which was part of both of his dances on Thursday's show.
That said, if I'm judging, Stacy still has a bit of an edge. I thought she was better in the first round, when Drew's cape was just too laughable. (Jerry Rice's big hair in the freestyle was pretty weird, too, but a wide camera shot had given away the gag before we got to the dance.)
And I have a pretty simple way of deciding which dancers are better. First -- memo to Master P -- they actually have to dance. Second, I imagine how I would react if I saw them, non-famous, in a chorus line. In most cases, you would look at one of the celebrity dancers and think something was wrong; even in the better dancers, there's self-consciousness and stiffness in some moves. Keibler seems to fit most easily into the dances and the least likely to stand out unpleasantly in a larger group of dancers. I concede that I may be giving too much credit to her because of those chorus-girl legs.
But, as fans know, ''Dancing With the Stars'' isn't just about being a great dancer. It's about, as reality-TV folks are so fond of saying, ''the journey.'' ''Dancing'' is making that a pretty long journey, giving the contestants one more chance to impress the judges on Sunday night before a winner is announced. But a journey it definitely is.
''American Idol'' starts at least with the assumption that, once the auditions are completed, the contestants have some singing ability. ''Dancing'' makes no such assumptions about its ''stars'' and dancing, so part of the audience interest lies in seeing how people will improve. Or not.
Rice, then, is very much ''the people's champion,'' as ''Dancing'' referred to him in the opening on Thursday night. (As in, something like ''two perfect dancers and the people's champion.'') He obviously brought fewer skills to the competition than either Lachey or Keibler; his recap in the first hour last night showed a lot of flaws for something that was supposed to feature highlights. But he keeps working and finally on Thursday night won over the judges to a degree he had not done before.
By the way, I watched ''Dancing'' this morning, having run out of viewing energy on Thursday night after catching ''Idol'' and ''Survivor'' (written about below) and a chunk of the Olympics, which I'll get to in a bit. And competing shows were clearly structured with ''Idol'' in mind. ''Dancing'' spent almost the entire first hour (when it was directly opposite ''Idol'') on recaps, and did not put a live dance on the air until after ''Idol'' was done at 9. Tom Bergeron even told viewers during the telecast that the live dancing would begin later, as if warning channel flippers they weren't going to miss anything.
The Olympics coverage also spread out its drama. Of course, part of that is to keep the audience around for four hours of programming; men's figure skating was also spread out over the evening. But it makes for a long night when Emily Hughes isn't shown until after 10 p.m ., when ''Dancing'' had finished as well as ''Idol.'' Sasha Cohen and the eventual gold-medalist, Shizuka Arakawa, did not get on the air until after 11.
As I mentioned yesterday, the figure skating lost some attraction for me after I saw online that Cohen had fallen and ended up with the silver medal. Still, I stayed up late enough to watch her and Arakawa. (The Japanese skater probably won over some viewers just by using the familiar and dramatic strains of ''Nessun Dorma'' for her music.) But after Cohen's falls, as well as the falling and wall-touching by other skaters, I have to wonder if something in figure skating needs an overhaul.
Is it emphasizing great but risky stunts too much? Are young skaters just not mastering the basics? Or should new drama be added -- perhaps by balancing the judges' scores with viewers' votes?
I'm kidding! A little.