Dancing with the Stars (Sunday, RTÉ One) is a fascinating show because of the implied question marks that follow both the verb and the noun in the title. It truly is Dancing (?) with the Stars (?).
Let’s deal with the second question mark first. Ireland is far from the British celebrity industrial complex, where celebs are endlessly created and filtered through a rich and complicated reality-television ecosystem. In Ireland we have only four television shows (the news, The Late Late Show, Leave It to Mrs O’Brien and Italia ’90), so people become celebrities by being pretty well known down the pub or by spending years qualifying to become the State pathologist. Yes, in Ireland you’re considered a celebrity if you have a “job”. In a way this makes our celebrity culture better than Britain’s, because when we start rooting for a celebrity (?) dancer (?) it feels personal, like they’re a friend of our sister or someone we knew in school. And usually they are.
This is a beautiful thing for Ireland’s grumpy das, who can spend a blissful Sunday evening shouting “Well I’ve never heard of him!” at the television. It’s something grumpy das enjoy only marginally less than shouting “What’s that eejit saying now?” when they see Bono. In this respect Dancing with the Stars provides a useful service for the households of grumpy das, providing a distraction for them, much like one might use one of those colourful mobiles to distract babies, those chortling fools. Just look at your da’s happy little face as he gets to say “Well I’ve never heard of him!” over and over again. He’s having the time of his life.
Dancing with the Stars is the sort of fun, good-natured light-entertainment show that is necessary for national cohesion. It’s all overseen by Jennifer Zamparelli and Doireann Garrihy. I like both of them a lot. I like Doireann Garrihy because she widens her eyes in amazement at the sights she is beholding (celebrities dancing at various levels) as though she is witnessing true wonders of the age and considers them glorious tributes to our heavenly creator, Satan. I like Jennifer Zamparelli because I’m pretty sure she became a television presenter as a dare, turned out to be effortlessly good at it, spent a decade doing it by accident and is always moments away from telling the whole country to go f**k itself. Though I may be reading too much into things.
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I also like the judges. Lorraine Barry, her blonde bouffant elegantly emerging from a sort of crow costume, is a sophisticated dancing professional who can gaze upon prancing atrocities and still dare to hope for a brighter future.
Brian Redmond, on the other hand, is in hell. He has been dragged here from a cocktail party (presumably) and made to look at vandals traducing an art form he loves. What’s more, the philistines in the audience boo him for it and consider him a “mean” judge when they simply have not seen the things he has seen. Now he can’t stand to look at dancing. His own judgments are like ashes in his mouth. He has forgotten the existence of any number above five and last week he had a full head of rich and luscious hair.
The third judge is my favourite. He is hairy and glittery and waves his arms wildly while hooting and hollering with enthusiasm. I believe he is one of the Muppets. Possibly Grover. (It’s actually the professional dancer Arthur Gourounlian.)
I appreciate the lesson Marie Cassidy’s dancing gives to children about how there is no order in the universe, God is dead and you can do whatever the hell you like. It’s good to learn that young
Let’s move on to the dancing (?). The professional hoofers are, of course, fantastic. They begin each show with a big routine to remind us what dancing is. This week’s was disco themed, and the finale involved dancers on roller skates. They are superhumanly talented. If you made one of the celebrities dance on roller skates they would instantly fall and die. Anyway, these people have trained for years to turn their bodies into graceful rhythm machines, and now they’ve been partnered with a bunch of primped, furniture-polished foot fools.
The pros employ some tried-and-true tactics to get through the show. If the contestant can act they begin the dance with a whimsical moment. The dance will start with a grinning ingenue pretending to be surprised at the emergence of their dance partner, before they both start bouncing across the floor like common lunatics. Another tactic is for the seasoned pro to use their inert dance partner as a sort of prop to fling about or gyrate skilfully around. Many of the best dances remind me of shenanigans in the classic corpse comedy Weekend at Bernie’s.
Speaking of appropriate ways to handle a body, my favourite contestant is the silver-haired Marie Cassidy, the former State pathologist. Maybe it would make more sense to have her as a judge on the show (“This celebrity is actually clinically dead. Six points!”), or they could have invented a show called State Pathologising with the Stars. But having her dance is far more innovative. I appreciate the lesson it gives to children about how there is no order in the universe, God is dead and you can do whatever the hell you like. It’s good to learn that young. I also expect at some point many of us will end up having a conversation in which we say: “I’m very sorry you experienced that, but I know her largely from that dancing show.”
There are other contestants. Suzanne Jackson, a blogger and cosmetics entrepreneur, can dance quite well. Panti’s waltz was also a graceful triumph. But poor Kevin McGahern, who was kidnapped and woke up on the show, faceplanted his dancing partner at rehearsal, so it evens out. I do have some other favourites. Paul Brogan’s samba was like watching a Masters of the Universe action figure doing an erotic dance. And I mean this as a compliment. This has long been a dream of mine.
Shane Byrne, a statuesque rugby legend whose hair is like that on purpose, does several terrifying cartwheels while wearing a sort of Hawaiian shirt. This is television at its purest. Try getting that experience across on radio or in a symphony or novel. You can’t do it, and that’s why nobody reads.
Speaking of the majesty of nature, the Orwellian animal-surveillance show Winterwatch (Tuesday to Friday, BBC Two) is back. On Tuesday’s episode we get to observe starling murmurations, a clattering of jackdaws in the fog, a herd of reindeer in the snowy Highlands, a clan of badgers near a zoo and, my favourite, a beaver chomping on an apple. And lest we forget that, as well as being delightful, nature is also disturbing and weird, the presenter Chris Packham shows us his collection of mammal skulls and we get to watch a backswimmer liquidising a glassworm with its digestive enzymes until it is an empty husk. It reminds me a little of Dancing with the Stars. It also makes me feel strangely hungry.