Jazz hands from hell: “Dance Moms,” Round Two

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Ever since the fabulous first season of American Horror Story wrapped up, I’ve felt a real, yawning void in my life. I had just plain gotten used to my weekly peek at a 21st-century landscape where monsters hold sway over the innocent, all relationships end in shame and betrayal, and human suffering sometimes gets so bad that not even the warm embrace of the grave can promise complete escape. Thank God Dance Moms is coming back. Yes, next Tuesday on Lifetime marks the sophomore season of a show that would have easily qualified as my top guilty pleasure of 2011 -- had I not dispensed with the concept of guilt loooong ago. If you missed it, the series can easily be summarized in one sentence: “A morbidly obese dance instructor takes out her intense self-loathing on a group of defenseless children and the Botox-ridden strumpets God gave them instead of real mothers.” And to think I only started watching the show because Toddlers and Tiaras looked too creepy. Dance Moms may have begun as a melodramatic lark in my mind, but within a few short weeks, I was watching slack-jawed as choreographic Kraken Abby Lee Miller put her young charges through one wickedly ill-considered routine after another. It was bad enough when she was literally tarting up the girls (some of whom were barely old enough for primary school) in Vegas-risque outfits and spackle-thick eyemakeup; that gave some of the mommies pause, too, but when it started winning competitions, nobody complained too loudly. What was fully bizarre was Miss Abby’s apparent insistence on staging at least one disturbingly “edgy” number every three episodes -- a tactic grounded in her stated certainty that “dark,” controversial subject matter would likewise curry favor with the judges.

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I still have nightmares about “Where Have the Children Gone?,” a beyond-distressing tableau that was meant as some sort of paean to abducted tots. Every kid on the stage got to portray a different milk-carton case and act out the circumstances of her disappearance. I’ll not soon forget the sight of little Nia, an otherwise utterly undistinguished hoofer, literally throttling herself -- her tiny hand  on her own throat as she vanished backward into the wings, an expression of bug-eyed horror etched upon her face. I’ll not soon forget it because I had to rewind the DVR three times to see it again. It was the best age-inappropriate sick laugh I’ve had since Kick-Ass.

Miss Abby, it soon became apparent, simply hates children. Why, we can only speculate. The first season of the show offered up all the clichéd cues: She’s fat, she never married, and her own lack of personal success has driven her to simultaneously resent and live vicariously through her students. And I’m totally willing to buy all of that. If a show works that hard to force-feed me motivation, who am I to turn it down? All I know is that, with every episode, I became more and more amazed that this woman had been given a national television program. A few years ago, when one of the contestants on Megan Wants a Millionaire was declared guilty of a grisly murder-dismemberment, a nation feigned surprise; but if police investigators discovered tomorrow that Abby Lee Miller had the corpses of seven prepubescents stuffed in her basement, nobody could legitimately bat an eyelash. The woman once sent her top dancer on stage sporting a fake black eye, for God’s sake. (Don’t ask.) Making Miss Abby a star on Lifetime was like giving John Wayne Gacy an afternoon slot on ABC Kids.

Nobody of consequence having turned up missing in the vicinity of her studio in the months the show has been off the air, Dance Moms is clear for a sophomore outing. Rob Owen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has already seen the first episode, and I’m bitterly jealous. I’m also pissed that he’s dropped a major spoiler about a cast addition -- I need to experience these things at the pace the producers intended, thankyouverymuch. And those producers really do earn their keep, as the first season’s herky-jerky narrative backhandedly proved. As subplot upon subplot festered, flared and abruptly fizzled, it was clear that there was major editing-room damage control going on. The show’s focus veered crazily from one stage mother to another, all in apparent response to a central challenge: Nobody in its cast can act. I mean, not a lick. It could be the worst-performed reality show in history. Gene Simmons Family Jewels is an exercise in the Meisner technique compared to this crap. [youtube vjG51i1Hf0o] And that’s what I’ve really come to love about the series. It’s certainly why I can chortle over the whole child-abuse angle with something close to a clear conscience. Every time I get to worrying about the mental damage Miss Abby might be inflicting on her kids, I’m reassured by a line reading or facial expression that’s so breathtakingly bogus it gives me a new appreciation for dinner theater. When we were kids, we wondered how many licks it took to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. Now, as adults, we tackle a thornier conundrum:  How many takes does it take to be this bad? It’s even better when the audience goes along with it -- and that means the press, too. So I’m simultaneously delighted and a little terrified by reviewer Owen’s assessment that a certain sequence “feels staged.” (Ya think?) He also wonders why the dance moms would subject their children to Miss Abby’s almost pathological cruelty. His conclusion: “Either they’re dumb or addicted to reality show fame. Or possibly both.” Okay, pull the other one. Are we genuinely expected to believe that all of this is really happening somewhere? For all her ain’t-got-time-to-bleed blustering, Abby Lee Miller rests somewhere alongside The Little Mermaid’s Ursula on the believability scale. If I have to start treating the show as an inept representation of objective reality, and not merely an inept pantomime of it, I’m going to have to rethink the whole thing. And to paraphrase Miss Abby, I wasn’t put on this Earth to think; I was put on this Earth to watch an elephantine never-was yell at a six-year-old.

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