SO YOU THINK I WON’T WATCH?: Back when writing up recaps of the Idol shows produced on either side of the border was the most onerous part of my job, my hate mail was frequently broken up with e-mails from readers – men, mostly – thanking me for giving voice to their Idol-hatred, as their wife/girlfriend made them watch the thing every week. (Frankly, it sounded to me like someone needed another TV, or an expensive, time-consuming new hobby, if only to make a point.) I was glad to be of service, but I can’t help but be grateful that the one show my wife is addicted to – a show similar to Idol in many respects, and produced by the same people in fact – is one that I actually enjoy watching every week, now that it’s back on the air for its fourth season.

I’m talking about the awkwardly-titled So You Think You Can Dance?, which everyone mistakes for Dancing With The Stars, a far inferior piece of primetime by any standard. My distaff side and I aren’t the only fans, judging by the show’s stellar summer season ratings, and by an appreciation of the show that ran in the Los Angeles Times this weekend.

Claire Zulkey, a Times staffer tasked with following shows like 30 Rock, Dexter and America’s Next Top Model, states with unnecessary qualification that SYTYCD is “arguably the best performance competition on TV, let alone during the summer season, and it's the perfect series to cleanse the palate after Idol.” Fans of the show often talk about how much they prefer it to Idol, despite the many similarities, and that seems like as good a place to start as any.

The structure is almost identical, from the city-to-city auditions to the viewer voting and face-off finale, so the major difference between the two shows is tone, more than anything else. Both shows feature a female judge famous for a slight daffiness, to put it politely, and a British “mean” judge with a major financial stake in the show and the job of injecting bitter reality into the critiques of each performance. On SYTYCD, however, Mary Murphy is merely a bit loud and not a thrown Pepsi cup away from committal, while Nigel Lythgoe, even at his bluntest, comes across as a gentleman who can articulate his criticism without resorting to cruelty as shtick.

Zulkey praises the show for what she calls its “low condescension level,” by which she means that, especially during the open audition rounds, “the show avoids patronizing its potentially pitiable contestants, unlike, say, America's Next Top Model, in which a girl can barely get on the show if she hasn't been abused or been homeless.” In my opinion, the show works because dancing, unlike singing, is easier to judge objectively; charm, style and repertoire can get you a long way on Idol, but if you’re not up to the physical demands of dancing the show’s routines every week – a challenge whose rules are set by simple, brute biology and physics – no blinding array of charm can save you. A Canadian version is in auditioning, and set to debut on CTV this fall and, frankly, I haven’t looked forward to a Canadian show this much since Front Page Challenge went all-nude.

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