Matt Sayles/AP
Tom Gliatto
March 18, 2014 08:15 AM

How has NeNe Leakes not already done Dancing with the Stars?

That was my first thought as ABC’s long-running ballroom competition began its 18th season Monday – although that’s precisely the sort of thought the producers probably don’t welcome as they tweak and freshen an entertaining hit that has softened in the ratings.

The most newsworthy, even controversial change was hiring Erin Andrews, Fox Sports personality and former contestant from season 10, as cohost.

The addition of Andrews would be less interesting if prior cohost Brooke Burke-Charvet hadn’t been let go last month with no official reason or apparent fault. According to cohost Tom Bergeron, Burke-Charvet has been a good sport about the whole thing, but her initial response was an attention-getting Tweet: “weird day .Shocking pre-season elimination #DWTS ME.”

A well-timed Tweet can be like a stream of boiling water poured on a tightly organized community of ants.

Burke-Charvet, 42, always struck me as pretty, likable and pleasant, in the manner of a princess having the kingdom over for a garden party, and also nonthreatening, as perhaps she should have been. It would be unseemly and self-defeating to try to upstage Bergeron, who is flippant, charming and very much in command.

You couldn’t say Andrews, 35, staged a coup, but she wasted no time establishing herself on Monday.

Andrews talks with the flat, unhesitant delivery and slanginess of an experienced announcer, and she casually plants herself on the floor with a kind of no-nonsense strength. She is angular and even willowy, but her center of gravity appears to be unshakable. If you covered the Super Bowl, wouldn’t you be the same way? How would you survive otherwise?

This may explain why she was sometimes overemphatic with a Jane Lynch bluntness. After James Maslow and Peta Murgatroyd’s number, she asked them about their history: “Everybody’s kind of wanting to know – what’s going on between you two? Not to get all Dancing with the Stars Weekly on you!” A perfectly fluffy and inconsequential question, but she sounded as if she expected them each to produce two forms of ID.

But this was her first night – she was doing her thing, she struck a fresh note, and she struck it firmly. And after an hour or so, she was at home.

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New Band, New Rules

The show has also brought in a new band, which sounded more rhythm-driven and slightly funkier than the old one. The biggest innovation, which will be introduced later in the season, will allow viewers to decide if the stars should switch partners. It sounds vaguely like the midterm elections.

Anyway, none of the changes in Monday’s two-hour premiere was as significant as last season’s cutting back to one night a week.

And then there are things that simply are impervious to further tweaking. I don’t see how judge Bruno Tonioli can go any more over the top without crushing the words “over” and “top” like saltines.

The most enjoyable moment of the night was essentially the oldest, and oddest: Billy Dee Williams, aka Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, danced the cha-cha-cha to the retro-disco Star Wars theme, with partner Emma Slater in a Princess Leia getup. It was kitsch, it was nostalgic, it was shameless, and it was fun, with a couple of Ewoks cheering in the audience.

It’s this kind of unpredictable nonsense – as well as the inspiring performance of someone like Paralympic athlete Amy Purdy – that keeps the show dependable family entertainment, and arguably food for the soul.

Isn’t it edifying to watch a celebrity, even a C-lister good for nothing better than kicking cans down the street, experience the eternal magic of music and movement? Better than seeing them throw knives in a wind tunnel or some other nutty extreme challenge.

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