Who will win Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars? That's the big question heading in to the two-part finale, which begins tonight at 8/7c on ABC.
Competing tonight will be Bill Engvall and Emma Slater, Jack Osbourne and Cheryl Burke,Derek Hough and Amber Riley, and Corbin Bleu and Karina Smirnoff. One of the four couples will be eliminated at the end of tonight's show, and the other three will perform a final routine tomorrow night before the winner is crowned.
"I think we have two completely different types of competitors," judge Carrie Ann Inaba told TVGuide.com ahead of Monday's show. "We have Corbin and Amber, who are in one class. And then you have Jack and Bill, who are totally of a different class. I think it's really interesting the way the fans have voted. I think people are really a fan of the whole idea of somebody who doesn't know how to dance really making the transformation, which is what Jack and Bill fall into."
The story of the season has been the seemingly unstoppable Engvall, whose ardent fans have kept him and Slater in the competition despite their consistently low scores each week.
"I think we've gone back to what the heart of the show is, which makes me really proud of our viewers," Inaba says. "They remember what the show was about when we first started, which was taking people who didn't know dancing and transforming them into dancers. I think that it's really nice to see people voting that way. ... People like watching people that they can relate to [and] they're rewarding somebody who's just going for it, gung ho, not afraid, and sometimes making a fool out of himself. But he's having a great time and he's doing it the way it should be done, which is all in good spirits and all in good fun."
We asked Inaba to break down the four couples ahead of the finale and give us her take on what each needs to do to take home the MirrorBall trophy Tuesday night. Here's what she had to say:
Corbin and Karina:
The judges chose the quickstep for one of Corbin and Karina's Night 1 routines, and they'll be paying close attention to Corbin's hold. "His shoulders were up and his frame was off," Inaba says of the last time Corbin and Karina did the quickstep. "That's been his problem from the beginning, is making sure that he's got the ballroom hold correct." A larger question is whether Corbin and Karina will be able to top their jazz routine last week, which Inaba called the best routine she's seen in 17 seasons of Dancing with the Stars. "For his freestyle, which is really where people win or lose this competition, he has to be better than his jazz routine," Inaba says. "The freestyle, for all of us, is expected to be the best performance of the season from that couple. ... And I think with him, he set the bar so high with his jazz that it's going to be a struggle for him to outdo it."
Amber and Derek:
Amber's been grappling with a knee injury all season, but she needs to power through (with clearance from her doctor) for the finale, according to Inaba, who insists that "at this point in the game, injury or no injury, she's got to bring her A+ game." The judges' pick for Amber is the Charleston — the dance where her troubles began. "This is the dance where I was telling her that her upper half was bangin' and she's such a great performer with her upper half, but her bottom half was sort of weaker. And I think when you have that kind of weakness, that's how you get injured," Inaba notes. And so, if she comes back really strong and tight and balanced with her upper body and lower body performance, I think that would be great." The judges will also be looking for Amber to make "some sort of breakthrough" in the finale. "She needs to take it up a notch," according to Inaba. "And I think that's going to be challenging for her, because she's sort of ridden at the top of the leaderboard throughout the whole season. ... The way she performs, her energy just comes like a skyrocket out of her, and it's really exciting to watch. But nothing really stands out to me as a super memorable signature for Amber dance."
Jack and Cheryl
The judges are thrilled with the way Jack's technique has improved throughout the season, according to Inaba, but they're looking for a little more oomph in the final. "Jack I think just needs to continue adding pizzazz to his performances," Inaba says. "He's definitely impressed us all with his incredible technique, his posture, his hold, his frame, his genteel manner when he dances. ... He makes a connection every time he gets out on the dance floor, and he's got this elegance in the way he moves and great technique, great footwork." But especially up against Corbin and Karina and Amber and Derek, he'll have to focus more on the theatricality of the dance. "What he needs to work on is to make sure that his performances have incredible sparkle and a vibrancy," Inaba says. "Jack has been slower to come out of his shell as far as the exuberant performances. He's had moments where he's done it. The judges picked the jive, which I thought he did great the first time, but Len and Bruno felt he had more to improve upon. So I think in order to impress Len and Bruno for that judges' pick and raise his score, he's got to really up the excitement and the tightness of it. He needs to just sort of let it go and really sparkle."
Bill and Emma:
"Bill in general has a lot to work on," Inaba says with a laugh. But his main problem is his musicality. "He's always been sort of not really in tune with the music," Inaba notes. "The musicality is really what kills him as far as judges' scores go. It's like he's thinking of it and then it's already happened." For his and Emma's Viennese waltz, Inaba says she'd like to see Bill adopt the same approach he did for his Argentine tango in the semifinals. "There was something magical that happened," she recalls. "He finally let go and just got into the music." As for the freestyle, Bill will probably rely on his personality and the cute skits he and Emma often incorporate into their routines, which have obviously struck a chord with voters. "He's got to be exciting and I think perhaps maybe give us that good old Bill charm that he does, those funny numbers that he does all the time," Inaba says. "But if he can raise the game of his technique just a hair, it would be very refreshing and I think it would be very exciting."
So, who knows how everything will shake out? As far as Inaba is concerned, anything could happen among the final four. "This year, we started off with some of the best dancers since the All-Star season," she says. "I really was expecting to have four incredible, top of the line dancers in the finale, and it's interesting what happened instead. I'm actually really, really curious to see what the results are. Never before in the history of Dancing with the Stars have I been so curious to see what's going to happen. ... It's almost like we have a fresh energy to the show."
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The Dancing with the Stars two-part finale airs Monday at 8/7c and Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC.