We Don’t Want So You Think You Can Dance to End — But It Can’t Go On Like This

There’s a dance-based competition show currently airing Mondays at 9 pm. New episodes land on Fox. Cat Deeley’s the host.

And yet, despite those familiar trappings, or the title that runs across the screen at the start of each episode, I’m having trouble believing that the show in question is actually So You Think You Can Dance.

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The announcement of Season 18 last December — after nearly two years off the air — came as a pleasant surprise, the kind with which fans of this series have become familiar. Even when Fox’s competition shows were at their buzziest in the mid-aughts, SYTYCD was always American Idol’s more niche, lower-rated younger sibling. As the years passed, its annual return to Fox’s lineup has become less and less of a sure thing; amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed unlikely the show would ever come back at all, and Season 18 is only its second cycle to air in the last five years.

But what seemed at first like a fresh start for the ever-struggling series now feels like the last gasp of a former summer staple, unrecognizable in its current form — and if this is the So You Think You Can Dance we’re left with, perhaps it’s time for a curtain call.

Full disclosure: Even typing that sentence made me want to scroll down and leave an angry comment on my own piece of writing. So You Think You Can Dance has played a series-regular role in my own life as a TV fanatic: Years before I would ever write about the show professionally, Teen Rebecca would send what she felt were very important “recap” emails to her family members and like-minded Internet friends, who nicely indulged her snarky thoughts on each episode. I’ve spent hours down YouTube rabbit holes, rewatching favorite routines. (Just this week, Wade Robson’s “Ramalama” group number has gotten some play.) And it was one of the many TV series I watched and rewatched with my late mother, a fellow pop culture obsessive whose love of Joshua and Katee’s Season 4 Bollywood routine was unparalleled.

Plus, dance remains woefully underrepresented on mainstream competition series. Outside of Dancing With the Stars — which isn’t exactly an option for non-celebrity contestants — there aren’t many avenues for aspiring dance pros that come with this level of exposure and credibility. Shooing away one of TV’s only prominent dance-centric shows admittedly feels backwards.

But for many seasons now, in the name of creative reinvention and improving ratings, SYTYCD has kept moving away from the original essence that made it a hit. It was a platform for not only the country’s bright-eyed contestants, but for up-and-coming choreographers (Mandy Moore! Sonya Tayeh!) and dance styles that many of us had never heard of before. Asking contestants to perform duets in new and challenging styles each week was a compelling, accessible approach — one that has been replaced, at various times, by a lackluster “Stage vs. Street” theme (Season 12), a kid-centric Next Generation cycle (Season 13) and a heavy reliance on returning vets and All-Star dancers.

Season 18, though, has proven to be the most frustrating departure yet — and not only because it’s the second consecutive season to have a scandal at the judging panel. Rather, SYTYCD has seemed a shell of itself in its current cycle. I mean, the competition is so truncated that the Top 10 (!) had already been determined by the end of the audition rounds. What’s more, the entire season has been pre-taped — a Fox rep confirms for me that there will be zero live episodes, including the finale — and the weekly performances have morphed into complex, showbiz-themed challenges where only the judges decide who gets eliminated each week. (The contestants are also living in a house together, adding a misplaced Real World vibe to the proceedings.)

The reinvention makes sense on at least one level: SYTYCD struggles to notch even a million viewers these days. I can see why Fox is scaling back when so few seem to be watching. But if the network is going to continue bringing this show back, it ought to be done the right way, or not at all. Why continue renewing it, only to speed through the season so quickly, we hardly know who these dancers are? Only to entirely remove viewers’ agency in who stays and who goes? Only to scrap every element that made this show a blast in the first place?

It’s time to meaningfully invest in the show’s success, or free it from this slow, sad deflation.

I know, of course, that I’ll keep watching So You Think You Can Dance until it stops cueing music, whether that’s in a few weeks when Season 18 ends, or years from now. But the question in the show’s title has already been answered time and again: These people can dance, and quite beautifully. If they’re going to prove that to us year after year, they deserve an adequate stage.

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