Adam Rose / FOX

On So You Think You Can Dance, Kids Are The Final Frontier

After rebranding as 'The Next Generation,' SYTYCD is back with a youthful makeover. America's Kids Got Dancing, y'all!

Los Angeles. 2016.

An astronaut -- or is he a cosmonaut? It's been so long since he's spoken to another human being that the distinctions between nations seem laughably meaningless -- wanders into the back of a theater to find what appears to be an audition. Recognition flashes across his face. All those years lost in the cosmos; all that he sacrificed to get back to this moment in space and time; it was all worth it. Because here he was, back in his beloved 21st century, his beloved America, and now, by pure chance and serendipity, he had wandered into an open-call audition for his favorite television program from the old days, So You Think You Can Dance. The universe, which had been so cruel to him for so long since that day it all went pear-shaped on that shuttle, was now finally paying him back.

He wanders down a side aisle, trying to remain inconspicuous, to be a fly on the wall while he watches. The first auditioner is called to the stage. The astronaut watches, puzzled. Dancers were always slight creatures, but this…this is an actual child. He brushes it off. Must be one of those things they do for TV, he reasons. Like letting some dancer's old granny up there to lindy-hop like it's V-E Day. Old people and children: good for ratings. But then a second dancer auditions. And then a third. The realization comes so suddenly that the color drains from his face. He climbs to the stage in a daze, ignoring Nigel Lythgoe's calls for security and only slightly acknowledging Paula Abdul's friendlier greeting ("I love your costume!").

The astronaut reaches center stage, notes the T-shaped mark on the floor with some fascination before dropping to his knees.

"Juniors? So You Think You Can Dance has gone JUNIORS? You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! GODDAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!"

Welcome to Season 13, everybody!

Along with the change in contestant ages (8-year-olds to 13-year-olds now), there's also a new look and feel to the production of the show, which is refreshing and also probably a nice way for longtime fans of the show to start thinking of SYTYCD: The Next Generation as truly a different show. Nigel, Paula, and Jason Derulo are back, and the achingly desperate opening credits ("Hey kids! Ya like YouTube? Ya like to 'fave' stuff?") promise that there will be a fourth judge once we reach the studio phase of the competition.

For now, though, we'll have Nigel Lythgoe's impersonation of the Night's King to keep us extra chilly on these hot summer nights.

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For now, though, it's auditions in Los Angeles, where talented youngsters and their thirsty-ass parents gather to see if we can kick some juice back into this old girl of a franchise. If nothing else, watching Cat Deeley interact with tweens is pretty damn adorable.

7. Stella and Geramy: Ballroom Babies

Let's talk about some things that are not Geramy's fault: it is not Geramy's fault that he got named that. It is not Geramy's fault that Stella makes herself the far more visible and sympathetic of their ballroom partnership. Also not his fault: whatever is going on in his life that would lead Stella to crow about how he lost 25 pounds recently. He's twelve. TWELVE. And considering he's a ballroom dancer good enough to get on camera on this show, he's an uncommonly active twelve-year-old. The only person in the universe who should be counting this kid's pounds are his pediatrician. That really bummed me out.

Anyway, that's not even the story here, according to the show. The story is that Stella was "brave" (Nigel's word) enough to beg the judges to give them another chance after a subpar jive. The judges obliged (YA GONE SOFT, LYTHGOE), and after a marginally more effective ballroom routine, the judges were unanimous in passing Stella along, but needed Nigel's coaxing to accept Geramy as well. This poor kid. They're never gonna let him eat again.

6. Young Master Robot

Merrick, age 10, is very into robots. Luckily, he's choosing the lucrative career path of dance over the meager financial prospects of robotics. His hip-hop freestyle -- heavy on animation -- is pretty good. Certainly leagues better than his speaking-into-the-mic style. Which is admittedly the least interesting of freestyles.

5. Ava, Plain and Tall

I started from a place of scoffing when it came to Ava, a 13-year-old, five-foot-ten contemporary dancer whose stated mission was to inspire kids that "no matter what you look like, you can do it." Let's pour one out for the extremely tall. But then Ava talked to the judges about getting crap on social media for her appearance (she is verrrry skinny, as you might imagine a five-ten eighth grader to be), and you have to figure that was a bitch to deal with since the internet just loooooves armchair diagnoses of eating disorders. So I sympathized with her. As did Jason Derulo, who talked about having haters and figured that would make him relatable. It's been more than a full season and I still just don't know about that one.

Anyway, Ava's contemporary looks clinical, which isn't surprising considering her age. She makes it through anyway.

4. Turn Out, Louise!

Avery is an 11-year-old ballet dancer whose mother is ready for her close-up, Mister DeMille. To the point where she actually says, "I kind of live vicariously through her." Which I would consider chalking up to self-awareness if she weren't wearing this weird pea-green Nehru jacket thing. Mama Avery spills the beans about her daughter's weird childhood alter-ego "Lady Vadida," which is mortifying for her, though not as mortifying as it is for the home audience to realize that Avery was born in 2005.

3. Tap Dad: Ass

Oh, I'm probably giving tap-dancing Ava's father too hard a time. The "Tap Dad" t-shirt seems a bit attention-grabby, sure, but he knows when to let Ava shine. Tap, by the way, is an exceedingly kid-friendly genre, so it's no surprise that Ava comes across as one of the most impressive dancers this season. Nigel thinks so too!

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Keep Lythgoe Weird, everyone.

2.Lev-rybody (Backstreet's Back)

I love this kid Lev. I love him even more because he looks like he got up in the middle of the night one night, saw a ghost in the bathroom mirror, and had his hair shocked stark white. He's a ballroom dancer, and we get a kind of hilarious variation on the classic SYTYCD ballroomers scenario, where the one partner is too young to compete on the show. Only this time "too young" means seven years old. Lotta life lived between the ages of seven and eight. Lev's another one who gets picked on at school, so let's all hope he makes them eat it. Lev's mom is a wonderful Samantha Morton character who loves her son very much. It's never not going to be weird to see a 10-year-old dancing ballroom, but it's kind of never not weird to see adult professionals dancing ballroom, so whatev. The judges love him, even though Jason keeps calling him a "little person." Children, Jason. They're called children.

1. Making Children Cry

Leon lost his dad last year (to the FLU, in case you weren't already on edge from all these juniors), and as tough as these weepy backstories are to get through when it's legal adults going through them, it's beyond excruciating watching a child go through with it. This poor kid. Onstage, however, Leon's hip-hop style is most enjoyable to watch. He even seems to have a sense of humor to his movements, which is pretty impressive for a kid. He's passed enthusiastically along to the "Dance Academy," which makes sense since you can't really send kids to Vegas unless you want them to develop smoking and gambling habits.

Dance Academy actually sounds like the one Juniors development that I'm into. Ten all-stars acting as coaches pick the Top 10, seemingly The Voice-style. It's an interesting evolution. This is not the So You Think You Can Dance we love. It's moving forward anyway, though.

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