Lots of us tuned into this season of Dancing with the Stars for the big "get us in the door story" -- Ryan Lochte, fresh off trashing a Rio gas station bathroom... dancing! But like most seasons of ABC's reality competition, other more interesting stories have emerged once the tabloid-style attention grabbers died down.
There's obviously Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, the season's most consistent and bedazzling performer, whose talent belies her age. There's Little Women: LA star Terra Jolé, whose passion and enthusiasm we all expected, but surprised us with her incredible skills on the ballroom floor. We can even talk about how many of us will get pregnant just from watching Jana Kramer and walking men's cologne commercial Gleb Savchenko sex-dance on stage.
But the real story in Season 23 of Dancing with the Stars is James Hinchcliffe.
It's okay, you can say, "Who?" The 29-year-old race car driver from Ontario, Canada arguably had the lowest profile when this season's cast was announced as he's famous in a sport that's internationally recognized but not that popular here in the United States. But those who have watched this season are quickly taking notice.
Hinchcliffe, who admitted to being "dancing challenged" when he decided to join the show, and partner Sharna Burgess have notched the week's highest score twice through six dances, second to heavy favorite Laurie, who has four. But last night, Julianne Hough proclaimed that James has been the best male "star" dancer the show has ever seen, and she wasn't just caught up in the moment. The dude can DANCE. I wish I had feet like that.
After a two-week dip following an impressive opening routine, Hinchcliffe and Burgess have scored 95 out of a possible 100 points for their last three dances. Read that again: 95/100. Five 9s and five 10s in three dances. That's the most points over the last three weeks, better even than Laurie's 92.
That kind of steady improvement subconsciously seeps into the judges' brains, and Hinchcliffe is still riding a relative wave of anonymity, meaning the pressures of expectations aren't being held against him and he can go out there and continue to impress despite sitting near the top all season.
And Hinchcliffe's athletic background allows him to take feedback and implement it in his next week's routine. You can see his mind taking in the criticism during each judge's summary, and he's not just looking for compliments. He's soaking up the advice like a sponge and using it to make himself a better dancer.
However, as we all know, Dancing with the Stars is also a popularity contest and America's vote counts. This is where you would think James would hit trouble, with his Canadian-ness and exotic job holding him back. But as impressed as we've all been with James fluid dancing, it's his personality and charm that may be even better.
James is a humble goof, deflecting praise away from himself toward his partner Sharna at all opportunities and playing up the "I can't believe I'm doing it either" routine, but with sincerity. He can't believe it, we can't believe it, the judges can't believe it. He came out of nowhere to be a powerhouse in the show, and people still don't know who he is.
He's also game to ham it up for the scores, as he did as a circus ringleader during Cirque du Soleil week, or in any of his training videos, like last night's which showcased James' "sexy" alter-ego Ricardo in a self-made skit that was funnier than anything Saturday Night Live has done in years. The man is a born entertainer.
This package of talent and personality is exactly what the judges and viewers are looking for, and it could lead to one of the show's most surprising upsets once the season is all done. Canada's biggest secret may become its biggest export very soon.
Dancing with the Stars airs Monday nights at 8/7c on ABC.