Monday night on the Season 23 premiere of Dancing with the Stars, America watched as a rag tag bunch of dancing newcomers took to the stage to prove they can do more than just what they…usually do. An entrepreneur and talk show host, a Brady, a wide receiver, a race car driver, a country singer, a TV wizard, a Grammy award-winning singer with a voice smooth as a baby’s face, an actress, a former governor, a Lifetime star, an Olympic gymnast, Vanilla Ice, and a liar all foxtrotted and cha-cha’ed their way across the stage in dances that gave a nod to their present relevancies.
Arguably this season’s most controversial star, the liar (Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte) was introduced as “the second most decorated Olympic swimmer in history” who “made some other news too.” It’s a star-spangled way to talk about a man who lied about being robbed at gunpoint in a country he doesn’t live in.
Lochte, whose mother is Cuban, is a white Latino whose Anglo-passing privilege played a huge role in the way he took advantage of his situation in a Latin American nation. As Cristina Arreola of Bustle noted last month, what makes Lochte’s actions “infinitely more disappointing” is the fact that he’s been given “an incredible platform to speak on behalf of Latinos and POC who don’t have his privileges, and instead he’s squandered that opportunity.” Alas, here’s another one.
At the top of his portion of the show, Lochte’s video introduction shows his dance partner, Cheryl Burke, who says she wants to help him find his way again. Lochte, we see in rehearsal footage, is a determined, hardworking man whose biggest fear is to let others down. He’s the underdog dancing through the error of his past (very recent) ways and he wants to show the world how much he’s changed.
Lights come up in real time on Lochte and Burke: he in a symbolically blinding white get up, looking like he just stepped out of his stretch limo for prom, she in a pale pink dress. The couple dances to Frank Sinatra’s classic, “Call Me Irresponsible.” Burke guides the stiff swimmer across the floor, and he gifts the audience with the occasional overhead arm pose and coy smirk.
“Yes I’m… unreliable,” the song goes, as we watch the dance routine unfold: a guy who tries to push his luck with his date ends up winning her over with charm. He surprises her with flowers just moments after he’d tried to get handsy with her. Cute.
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba tells the pair, “This is a place for second chances,” but the judges agree that Lochte lacks grace. Mid-review, two protestors wearing shirts with Lochte’s name in a red “no” symbol rush the stage. The cameras don’t show the whole incident, but The Washington Post reports the protestors jumped down to the stage and attempted to knock Lochte down. Instagram video from fellow Olympic swimmer Ed Moses, who was in the crowd cheering his pal on, shows the protestors being arrested and escorted out by security while women in the same shirts shout “Liar!” from the stands. The show goes to commercial break.
The visibly frustrated judges have one clear message when the show returns: they are only here to judge Lochte on his ballroom dancing. Everything else is dismissed under the umbrella of drama.
“We are nothing if not a country of second acts and second chances,” host Tom Bergeron lies to the liar.
Lochte’s behavior in Rio earned him a 10-month suspension and a barring from the 2017 world championships. He lost his sponsors. He won’t be able to visit the White House with Team USA later this month. Sure, maybe he’s already begun to pay for his actions.
ABC does not intend to make a bad example of Ryan Lochte. He can afford to be immature.
In a country of second acts, Lochte is getting his. ABC wants to make a good show, which means high ratings, which means juice! Meat! Controversy! Watch us bring this sinner back to life! He may be knocked down, but quick! Glitter! Look! See? We all deserve another try, don’t we?
In this country of second chances, I can’t say the same would ever happen if a Black man, a Middle Eastern man, other men of color who don’t pass for white, lied about having a gun cocked and held to their heads. It rarely does.
In that way, DWTS is authentically American. Call it irresponsible.