Looking at the “Dancing with the Stars” finale, I thought I’d paraphrase a line from baseball announcer Vin Scully and wonder whether in an improbable season 17, the impossible would happen. That is, would fan favorite and massive underdog Bill Engvall, who has improbably made it to the finals, actually achieve the impossible and win?
The 56-year-old Blue Collar comedian surely would be one of the most heartwarming ‘DWTS’ success stories, but he was up against the talent of Corbin Bleu and Amber Riley, and the cheeky charm of another underdog, Jack Osbourne.
But I felt going into Monday night’s show that if Bill were any good at all, he would ride the redneck nation to the mirror ball.
Tonight, our final four celebrities would compete in three rounds: a “judges’ pick” of a dance from earlier in the season, a samba relay, and a supersized freestyle. Whew. I could hardly wait.
The show started with last season’s winner, Kellie Pickler, singing “A Little Bit Gypsy.” To me, this was a good omen for Engvall as he has been capturing the votes of the country audience.
The opening parade of couples showed Derek Hough leaping over Amber’s head in the pro’s signature move and Corbin and Karina Smirnoff doing a little Michael Jackson homage.
Bill Engvall and Emma Slater: Viennese Waltz
“Man, nobody thought we’d be here,” Bill told the cameras in the understatement of the season. The judges had picked the Viennese waltz for Bill and Len Goodman visited him in rehearsal to give his tips. The main thing was for Bill to stay on time, Len said, but the emotion was provided by his partner Emma, who dissolved in tears at their last practice session. Bill started out swaying on the ballroom floor solo and then joining Emma to take her hand and lead her into the waltz. Bill seemed very into it, keeping his composure and boasting good arm extensions. I was watching him as much as his partner, which was a good sign for this romantic partner dance. The routine was very sweet, quiet rather than flashy; I don’t think it was much better than the first time they’d performed it, though. Len saw fluidity but felt he lost timing a bit. Judge Bruno Tonioli, who was celebrating his birthday, said Bill was so genuine: “What you see is what you get.” Meanwhile, Carrie Ann Inaba said Bill had played his own game the whole time and warmth always showed in his dances—but yes, he had gone out of rhythm.
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Corbin Bleu and Karina Smirnoff: Quickstep
Karina wanted Corbin to maintain control in their quickstep redo. Len had found this one frantic when they performed it earlier in the season. And hey, Len was visiting this couple in rehearsal, too, which made me think, again, that the veteran judge might be on his swan song season. “I’m expecting more,” Len told Corbin emphatically. Okay, so Corbin was playing director again, starting out in black and white as in a silent movie, then going into color for his teaming with his “star,” Karina. The High School Musical hottie looked confident and the boots showed off his perfect Charleston steps in the dance. But it wasn’t perfect; I think I spied Karina having a little bobble in the middle; still, the audience gave them a standing O. “I thought it was far more controlled but your left arm went straight,” Len complained. Bruno busted Corbin for going out of sync but praised him for the fancy footwork. Carrie Ann called herself “a little disappointed” because his frame was bad. Wow. The front runner had stumbled but they still got straight 9s.
Jack Osbourne and Cheryl Burke: Jive
Okay, so Bruno was taking over this rehearsal session to give Jack and Cheryl his campy advice on how to nail the jive. Good luck with this one as Jack always flunked out on the faster, less structured dances. But the Osbourne kid looked like he was giving it his all in rehearsal. There was Jack playing the guitar again as the number started then going into his jive face, which was like a nerdy deer in the headlights. He paused in one move during the dance like he forgot the step, then kept going. At the end, we all knew backstage this one was a bummer. “I messed up and I’m sorry,” Jack told host Tom Bergeron when it was done. “The timing went out the window! I think it was nerves,” Bruno sighed. Carrie Ann said she was heartbroken because Jack got off on the wrong foot while Len said he lost it early on but he had two more dances to make a comeback. Talk about faint praise! Hopefully a waltz-based freestyle was in his future.
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Amber Riley and Derek Hough: Charleston
I couldn’t believe Amber was going to do the Charleston on her bad knees but Carrie Ann was there in practice to tell them how to refine the routine. The “Glee” actress was sitting at her dinner table again waiting for Derek to pick her up and join her in the hip hop “Great Gatsby”-inspired freestyle. One of Amber’s knees was wrapped up tight but she was able to do all the moves and I knew she was going to get raves from the judges. The only thing that bothered me here was I didn’t see that her dance was that much different from before. In fact, due to Amber’s injury, I really think the first time was better for his routine. But Carrie Ann was so proud of her and said she’d topped herself. Len also said she was the most improved all night. Bruno spoke admiringly of how Amber was as sharp as a razor blade tonight. As I thought, Amber got her perfect 30 and her Glee co-stars went nuts in the audience. Was I being mean-spirited in thinking, though, that she had much more dance experience coming in than Bill and Jack — and shouldn’t take home the top prize?
Samba Relay: This dance was going to be set to TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Bill joked he had rigged trap doors on the ballroom floor so the rest of the competitors would be going down. Jack would have to perform first and honestly, samba wasn’t his dance any more than jive. He started it off and as expected, it wasn’t very good. Amber and Derek scored with their ending stirring movement but Bill looked thoroughly out of place trying to salsa to hip hop music! Then Corbin and Karina brought it home with the best salsa of the night. “You blew us away,” Carrie Ann said in summing it up.
4th place: 2 points: Bill
3rd place: 3 points: Jack
2nd place: 4 points: Amber
1st place: 5 points: Corbin
Bill Engvall and Emma Slater: Freestyle
Season 17’s most surprising couple was going to do an Indiana Jones-inspired comic routine and I hoped it would be as funny as his Halloween number earlier. But in rehearsal, Bill was still talking about his groin injury and had concerns about injuring Emma if a stunt went awry. He began the number by swinging onto the ballroom floor on a rope and looking for the mirror ball instead of the ark. In a bizarre special effect, a big digital mirror ball flew across the floor, sending Bill running like Harrison Ford, and then Emma appeared to be his partner in adventure. Bill was able to spin Emma aloft and do some rope tricks that involved him trying up Emma and dragging her like a calf. It didn’t have enough dance content for me, but Bill was thrilled beyond words at the end and tore his shirt off for the crowd. All-Stars winner Melissa Rycroft shook her head with hilarity in the audience. Len said Bill had lost his ark but not his ability to entertain. According to Bruno, it was beyond dancing and “insanely good fun.” Carrie Ann called him an everyman’s dancing hero but indicated the dancing skill wasn’t there. He got a gift 9 from Len.
Corbin Bleu and Karina Smirnoff: Freestyle
The actor and longtime ‘DWTS’ pro were indeed going to do a Michael Jackson tribute, to “Smooth Criminal,” and if this wasn’t the best routine of the night, I was going to eat the King of Pop’s hat. In fact, the duo went to Las Vegas and learned Michael’s steps from the late singer’s choreographer, Travis Payne. It began Cirque de Soleil style with Corbin and Kairna suspended upside down from the ceiling. Once lowered, they both boogied like MJ and fearlessly did the moonwalk in the middle of the dance. Then they were joined by some extra dancers, Tony Dovolani among them, who lifted Karina while Corbin jumped over her. The two leaned towards each other without moving their feet, which made everyone gasp backstage. For the first time tonight, there was unanimous applause in the press area. “You killed it,” Bruno declared, saying he perfectly blended MJ with ballroom. Carrie Ann admitted she normally didn’t like tributes to iconic stars, but said he nailed it and made her miss Michael. Len gave them one of his rare standing Os. This 30 was well deserved, and I doubted anyone else would top that routine tonight.
Jack Osbourne and Cheryl Burke: Freestyle
The rocker’s son had been a finale disappointment so far, but I was hoping he would go out on a high note with a freestyle that included plenty of frame. But MS victim Jack fell hard during rehearsal and admitted to Cheryl it would be a physical challenge: “I’m hurting.” But my spirits rose when I saw the number was a Fred Astaire type of thing with Jack in top hat and tails and wielding an elegant walking stick. Jack was even more charming than usual in hold and even winked at the ABC camera. He then tossed aside his hat and did some very quick side-by-side kicks with Cheryl that awed reporters backstage. This tribute to classic Hollywood musicals, with musicians behind them to make the routine supersized, had such a warm spirit but not only that—Jack completed all the moves like a pro. The reality TV son knew he’d uncorked something great, too—he actually rode his stick like a horse after the dance ended, in total triumph. “That was a show stopper,” Carrie Ann raved. “Hat’s off to you!” Len said his family should be so proud of him and Jack became teary-eyed. “Hooray for Hollywood and hooray for Jack,” said Bruno as both dance partners were then crying. Wow. I had to take it back about Corbin’s routine! THIS was the best dance of the night. And I remembered my rule about the best freestyle winning the show has always held true in the past. Were we going to see the other underdog win this thing instead of Engvall? That would be the ultimate surprise in a season of them!
Amber Riley and Derek Hough: Freestyle
Amber was surprisingly going to try a country western theme but then I recalled that this ploy had worked for Donald Driver once upon a time in one of the best freestyles in ‘DWTS’ history. Derek was seated at a table in the saloon when Amber kicked down the door and joined her “pardner” for some aggressive moves. It turned into a hip hop line dance at one point and Amber also “shot” cowboys; they later all waved towels around as part of the Oklahoma choreography. The Glee star also incorporated some tap like moves in the middle and walked straight at the camera. After she shimmied around at the end, all the cowboys wound up dead at her feet. I liked this dance a lot better than Amber’s first routine tonight and it was undeniably a powerhouse effort, but still, Jack’s classic routine lingered in my mind more. Len said the whole number was just about her, no one else, while Bruno called her a leading lady with charisma and star power. Carrie Ann said she was in control during the whole dance. A perfect 30 and Amber was crying as much as Jack had earlier. I admired how she’d triumphed over injury this season.
Tonight, one couple would be eliminated, but first, the couples picked dances for each other for Tuesday night’s fusion style.
Who would miss out on the Tuesday night grand finale altogether, though?
Underdogs Bill and Jack were in the bottom two.
The celebrity going home was….Bill Engvall!
‘DWTS’’ feel good story was finally over, folks. “I don’t think I could make one more dance,” the exhausted comedian admitted with partner Emma by his side.
A great outcome to me tonight as with his freestyle, Jack completely deserved to be in the finale. Loved Bill but he was more an entertainer than a dancer and he’d gone as far as he could.