ABC's ballroom reopened Monday night to a full house. Thirteen returning competitors, six previous winners among them, hit the floor with their professional dancers and some undeniably lofty exceptions -- most of which plummeted back into the atmosphere after the judges showed their paddles.
There are now nearly 60 different paddles hiding under the judges' table this season. The trio -- Carrie Ann Inaba, Bruno Tonioli and Len Goodman -- announced after the first performance that the series' latest twist is the half-point. That means even finer scrutiny and, in the case of tonight's premiere, more opportunities for celebrities to frown.
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The night didn't start out on the strongest note. Despite dances that would earn high scores in week four or five, if this were a normal season, the first sets of scores elicited boos from the crowd and visibly annoyed competitors. Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson, first out of the gate, barely pulled a 20.5 with their bubbly cha-cha.
Shawn Johnson and Derek Hough (22) followed with a foxtrot, before Sabrina Bryan and Louis Van Amstel (22.5) and Helio Castroneves and Chelsie Hightower (21.5).
Pamela Anderson and Tristan MacManus paid homage to Amy Winehouse, complete with fake tattoos and excessive eyeshadow. Unfortunately, they also had the lowest score of the night, a 17.
Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani got high praise from the judges, though their 21 didn't match the scores of some of the couples that went before them. Apolo Anton Ohno and Karina Smirnoff also received flowery comments -- and obligatory Olympic puns -- to pull a 22, but they didn't match Gilles Marini and Peta Murgatroyd.
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The runner-up and the reigning champ offered up a sophisticated foxtrot that earned a whopping 24 points from the judges. The trio of "eight" paddles were the first real All-Star scores of the night and seem like an early indicator that Marini is once again finale bound.
Then came Bristol Palin and Mark Ballas. Their 19.5 has them in the bottom three going into Tuesday's elimination, but the judges were pleased. "I'm kind of taken aback," said Inaba. "I vote you the most improved since we saw you last time."
Drew Lachey might have been a little out of practice with new partner Anna Trebunskaya. The season two winner earned just a 21.5 and accusations of being "rigid," but they did seem to like their chemistry.
Season one winner Kelly Monaco and Val Chmerkovskiy also had a 21.5. Goodman even noted that Monaco was better than the last time they saw her.
Kirstie Alley and Maksim Chmerkovskiy's cha-cha could have used some work, but the chummy duo's rehearsal package more than made up for the lackluster performance. Their 19.5 had them in second-to-last place.
That left Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke. As one might have guessed by their end-of-the-show placement, they killed it. Their score, the night's highest at 24.5, probably would have been even higher if the judges didn't feel pressure to save any "nine" paddles for the coming 10 weeks. (Yes, 10 weeks.)
With 13 couples, there won't be a free week for the All-Stars. The show makes the first cut on Tuesday night.