Dancing With The Stars: The Great Uniter? Why This Reality Show is America’s Bi-Partisan Hit

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Bristol Palin competes on season 11 of 'Dancing With The Stars.'

Adam Larkey/ABC via Getty Images

In honor of the show’s 200th episode, which aired just last week, NewsFeed ponders the peculiar, patriotic world of Dancing With The Stars.

Politically speaking, it’s a strange time to be an American. The range of emotions felt across the political spectrum this week — only a week after the midterm elections — range from bitter depression on the left to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sense of glee on the right. But the one conclusion that everyone seems to have drawn is that they themselves are the only people who have not gone completely crazy. For the Tea Party it’s “taking our country back” to the era of Thomas Paine and Common Sense; for liberals with cable it’s rallying to Restore Sanity. But last week came a New York Times study that conclusively proves once and for all that both sides have completely lost it — how else could Dancing With The Stars, possibly the most insane show on television, also be the most bi-partisan?

The show, which draws more than 15 million viewers a week, was among the most targeted shows for political ads this season, with a combined 1,773 spots. Assuming a balance between 15-second and 30-second ads — let’s say an average of 20 seconds — that’s 591 minutes of DWTS campaign ads for the 2010 election. But unlike other shows, which are heavily targeted to draw out base voters (NCIS for Republicans, 30 Rock for Democrats) the Times found that the ads for Dancing With The Stars were split nearly 50-50 between the two parties.

More on TIME.com: The top 10 reality TV shows

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says this political balance is notable: “Apparently, Dancing With The Stars is the one place where we can just get along. It’s a good old-fashioned broadcast-era show.”

What sets Dancing apart? Where most popular TV shows, from the heavy ABC dramas to the intricate CBS procedurals, embrace heavy-handed self-seriousness, DWTS stands firm as perhaps the last refuge of camp among the mass hits (Glee sometimes shows signs of joining in, but has demonstrated a weakness for ending each episode with a ham-fisted ‘lesson’), and this season of Dancing has perhaps been its silliest yet. Presented with the presence of Bristol Palin, a non-singing, non-dancing political scion whose fame requires whole paragraphs to explicate, the show’s producers have not tried to hide her, but instead have ramped up the ridiculousness surrounding her. The absurd apex of this effort came in a minute-and-a-half segment in week six: Palin, stumbling through the theme song from The Monkees, looking completely lost — all while wearing a gorilla suit. It was the highlight of the season, perhaps the 90 strangest seconds of television to be aired this year. (Viewers, by the way, love it; despite scoring in the bottom for several weeks, Bristol has hung on through the eliminations. She is now one of the final five contestants.)

More on TIME.com: Pictures of the fairy-tale romance of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston

As Thompson see it, this strangeness is integral is its mass appeal: “It’s all over the place,” he explained. “It’s campy, with a style based in gay culture, and contestants like [bisexual comedian] Margaret Cho. And then there are people like Mrs. Brady and Bristol Palin: It’s a whole range of people.”

And, he adds, the show’s strangeness is itself a throwback to an earlier era: “This is a medium where we had talking horses, genies and talking cars. There was once a big hit called Battle of the Network Stars, with television actors in athletic competitions, that had a similar Dadaist quality.”

Gabe Delahaye, a blogger who often writes about the show on Videogum, sees it as emblematic of the snark-filled culture. “The show seems self-aware: It understands that it’s very low-brow, but it shields itself by suggesting that it’s all in good fun. It’s an odd kind of family entertainment, to be making fun of Bristol Palin, but that’s in line with the times.”

It’s worth noting that the show did not arrive at this point instantaneously. Though it debuted in the summer of 2005 with the highest ratings ever for a summer premiere, it quickly found itself lumped in with So You Think You Can Dance, as yet another bargain basement American Idol knock-off. (With three judges — one a cranky Brit — and an affable host ushering the proceedings along, the comparisons certainly were valid.) Its earlier seasons in particular seemed to stretch the definition of ‘star’ almost to its breaking point, with forgotten beauty queens and anonymous Abercrombie models filling up the cast.

More on NewsFeed: The 10 most dubious Dancing With The Stars “Stars”

But as Idol‘s fortunes waned (thanks in large part to seasons full of disappointing crooners), DWTS found its profile on the rise, due to some canny, daring casting decisions. Last spring, in its 10th season (the show airs separate seasons in the fall and the spring), the show knocked American Idol off its perch as the top-rated show in network TV, in a coup Newsweek called “The End of the Idol Era.” Not coincidentally, that season was arguably the best-cast in series history, with flamboyant football star Chad Ochocinco providing the laughs, pneumatic sexpot Pamela Anderson providing the looks and reality mom Kate Gosselin providing the requisite villain.

“It’s a tough, algebraic formula,” said Thompson, praising last season’s mix of personalities. “You need the unexpected people you’d never expect to do it, the interesting tabloid stars and the people who can actually dance well.” (The season’s eventual champ was Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls.)

The show has also made sophisticated use of the Internet.

The show’s format has also proved surprisingly fit for the Internet age. Whereas some critically acclaimed cable dramas have inside-joke animated .gifs, the unofficial digital medium for Dancing With The Stars highlights is the embeddable YouTube clip, which cuts out all the extraneous padding, distilling the silliness into easy-to-e-mail bursts of chaos. Margaret Cho dancing with a cape! Erin Andrews dressing up as Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction! Tom DeLay shaking his moneymaker! With snarky commentary from sites like Videogum (and, err, NewsFeed) the clips rapidly make the social media rounds, even among those who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the show live. (Delahaye admits that he himself has never actually watched the show.) In some ways, the show has far wider reach than the ratings would indicate — though, of course, these Internet audiences aren’t watching the ads.

Given the universal appeal of the cast, and the viral spread of its influence, it’s little surprise then that campaigns chose to spend money right here, where they can reach just about any demographic. But even as 2010 has been a hit year for Dancing, some have started to take note of the limitations that surround this last bastion of appointment television. When people don’t watch Dancing With The Stars live, they don’t watch it at all. As New York magazine reported last month, the show gets one of the smallest bumps from DVRs among the broadcast networks (only around 700,000 extra viewers), and only around 350,000 watch full streaming episodes. The magazine called it “the last gasp of the old business model,” which is good for advertisers — like political campaigns — but bad news for shows that strive to have staying power.

Thompson, though, disagrees with the New York argument. “I don’t know if it’s the last gasp. People have been talking like that for a long time, but the old-fashioned broadcast model keeps breathing. Social media has really helped. We used to watch things in groups of two, three or four in living rooms; now we’re all watching it together. People like to watch it live, comment on it and tweet about it.”

Red or blue, the DWTS moral is clear: We all love a dancer in a monkey suit.