Heading into Tuesday night's season finale of "Dancing With the Stars," it's impossible to know who the audience will be pulling for, but it's certainly clear who the judges are betting on.
Treating Nicole Scherzinger as if she's already won and greeting Evan Lysacek and Erin Andrews mostly with bored politeness, the judges firmly stood with Scherzinger on Monday night. Still, the scores are close, and if the voters don't fall in line with the judges, anything is possible.
The first dance on Monday night was a "redemption" performance in which the judges assigned each candidate a dance the stars have done before, but on which they should have done a better job. Erin and her partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, wound up with the samba. Erin mastered the samba hips much better on her second try, and she finished with two 10s and a 9, putting her in what looked like a good position.
Evan and partner Anna Trebunskaya took on the Viennese waltz, which the judges had complained lacked chemistry the first time the pair performed it. It seems a little strange that the two were asked to create better "chemistry" this time around dancing to "Piano Man," a song about a bar full of boozehounds, but the pair did their best and they wound up only a point behind Erin and Maks with 28 points.
But then Nicole and Derek Hough were brought on to do the rumba. That's right: The closest thing the judges could come up with to challenging the resident Pussycat Doll was to assign her the role of "slinky temptress." What do you know — Nicole did very well as a slinky temptress, and the judges nearly lost their powers of speech in describing how amazing her dance was.
Unfortunately, Derek (as is often the case) simply couldn't bring himself to follow the rules (he's a rebel, you see), so he included an illegal lift in the routine, for which Carrie Ann Inaba docked them a point and Len Goodman may have as well. The pair ended up with 28 points, tied with Evan and Anna and one point behind Erin and Maks.
Then it was time for the freestyle round, which has a reputation for being the decision-maker. Strong impressions from these dances tend to influence audience response — or so the theory goes.
Fairly confident that she didn't want to compete for hip-hop novelty-dance superiority with experienced hip-hop dancer Nicole, Erin agreed with Maks that they should try something different, which turned out to be a contemporary lyrical number staged around a couch and a bed.
Ambitious and very different from the usual "ain't we adorable?" freestyle business, the piece was very pretty, but it didn't resonate with the judges much. While the panel made noises about respecting the effort, they awarded Erin and Maks only 26 points, leaving a gap for them to easily lose their lead.
But they wouldn't lose it to Evan and Anna. The gold-medal skater and his partner bickered over content and ultimately produced a super-high-energy dance to "Footloose." While Evan appeared to have finally mastered his crazy long legs and his ice-trained feet, the judges absolutely hated it and had very few positive things to say about it. They awarded Evan and Anna a punishing 24 points, which dropped the pair to three points behind Erin and Maks.
Derek and Nicole had every advantage in the freestyle (including dancing last). Her always wobbly argument that she isn't a "ringer" because she hasn't specifically studied ballroom dancing goes out the window when she and Derek are allowed to do whatever style they choose, which lets her advantage run wild. In fact, that's exactly what happened for most of the dance, which was basically hip-hop dance flavored with different styles of ballroom. No surprise, she and Derek did it very, very well.
Fortunately for those who like suspense, Derek and Nicole got carried away with showing off (as they do), and they blew a lift late in the routine so badly that the judges had no choice but to dock them a point. Thus, they scored 27 points, tying them exactly with Erin and Maks for the evening, three points ahead of Evan and Anna.
With high scores nearly a guarantee for Nicole and Derek on Tuesday's finale, if they'd made that lift and scored straight 10s for the freestyle and if they hadn't decided to throw in the lift in the rumba, the pair would be building a lead that could prove difficult to overcome. Fortunately, those errors kept it a close competition.
So who's likely to win on Tuesday? Nicole, obviously. She's a far better technical dancer than either Erin or Evan, and she's probably going to keep racking up points tomorrow. The Pussycat Doll has some traits that won't appeal to audiences (for example, the hammy moment when she and Derek insisted on re-enacting their blown lift backstage), but it remains to be seen whether that will hurt her enough in the voting to overcome the judges’ strong preference.
Nicole's the favorite, certainly, but audiences are fickle, and the words "you never know" fit as well on this show as anywhere.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington.