Is ‘Dancing with the Stars’ back on track or burnt out?

Tonight “Dancing with the Stars” returned following an all-stars season that wasn’t exactly sparkling in the ratings. While the show brought in 17 million viewers for the finale, that represented a 15 percent drop from the previous fall’s wrap-up. We won’t even discuss the 32 percent drop for the season premiere. Although “DWTS” was still a ratings powerhouse, it seemed to be beginning the slow fade we associate with aging shows. After almost seven years, it might be expected that a show would start leaching fans — or should, if it doesn’t find ways to either reinvent itself or get back to what made it great in the first place.
The fact that season 15 was an all-star season (and probably the first and last all-star season we’ll be seeing), I had hope that the show might get back to basics. Having seen the premiere, I think there’s reason to be hopeful that last season was just an unfortunate one-off. 
This season promised a mix of pro-athletes (Aly Raisman, Victor Ortiz, Jacoby Jones, Dorothy Hamill), comedians (D.L. Hughley, Andy Dick), country singers (Kellie Pickler, Wynonna Judd), a Disney Channel teen (Zendaya), hot guys (soap star Ingo Rademacher, “Bachelor” Sean Lowe), and a reality TV queen (Lisa Vanderpump). 
The important thing? Though some of these stars have related skills (Zendaya as a hip hop hoofer, Dorothy Hamill as an ice skater), no one is either an obvious lock for the finals (well, maybe Zendaya) or a skilled dancer. And that’s what last season lacked — by bringing back previous competitors, the learning curve was far less dramatic. Everyone was pretty good. No one was likely to forget their routine, or fall, or possibly break a hip. No one was a “joke” contestant, there to bring the personality and some laughs but nothing else. 
But the real issue is that no one was there to overcome a fear, or prove something important to him or herself, or find out if this was something they could actually do without completely screwing up. They’d all figured that out in a previous season. This time around, they just wanted a mirror ball or maybe get further in the competition than they had when they’d previously been on the show. To say the stakes weren’t all that high would be an understatement.
This time around, there were people I was actually curious to see in a spangly gown or a tux. I wanted to know if Andy Dick would be able to hold it together all the way until performance night (he did, give or take a crying jag). “Dancing with the Stars” is usually pretty skilled at tugging our heartstrings, and this time around we got a cancer survivor (Hamill), a former gang member (Hughley), a recovering addict (Dick), and the wife of a recent amputee (Judd). You can root for an underdog, a sad story, a big personality or hey, even just a good dancer. There’s a cornucopia of choices, and this season harkens back to any of the memorable ones. 
Bad (or at least rank beginner) dancing is also important in giving the judges something to talk about. Last season, they didn’t have much to do other than lavish praise on the dancers (or occasionally offer tepid criticism) week after week. While the game had changed, the rules hadn’t — and they were judging these people as the amateurs they were. While they weren’t up to professional standards, as amateurs they weren’t bad. Not bad doesn’t exactly lend itself to cutting barbs or pithy critiques — and with no lows, the highs don’t seem that great, either.
Already the judges seem to have sparked at the opportunity to rip a few unrehearsed or sloppy routines apart while gushing over early stand-outs. It may be my imagination, but they seem relieved to have some variety this season, even when that means having to watch some dreadful dancing.
Still, we won’t know until tomorrow just how much damage last season’s installment did to the franchise, or whether fans are just tired of all the dancing. I’m not so sure. Although I could do with fewer two-hour episodes (hey, I’d be good with an hour-and-a-half), I got sucked into tonight’s episode. I found myself rooting for a few people I didn’t expect to root for. I didn’t even mind the endless commercial breaks. Okay, strike that last part. But I just might be back on board.
Did you like the season premiere? Who are you rooting for? And what do you think of the competition?