The new season of Dancing With the Stars has churned out one of the better casts the long-running reality dance competition has ever offered, hitting all right steps with a great blend of lovable Olympians and the-exact-opposite-of-lovable Olympians, as well as the usual Disney star, familiar face from the wayback machine, pro football stars and big-name politicians, to name a few.
But it's not as easy as picking names out of a hat or making a few phone calls. There's a method to the madness that starts months before anyone taps a toe on live television.
"It's a very subjective and it's a collaborative process in putting the cast together," Rob Wade, executive producer of the BBC Worldwide production says. "We build one building block and we get one cast member in, then we think, 'What else do we need here?' We start to build it. And then with about three spaces left we have gigantic arguments, (laughs) and we decide what we need and that's how we get to the cast."
Wade is, not surprisingly, stoked for this year's roster of stars. "I'm extremely happy with the cast this season. I think we have a balance between sports, and different surprising people, household names, younger and fresher names, we've obviously got some controversial names and we've got more nostalgic names, as well. I think we have this balance, something for everyone. Some cast member should be there for every age group represented by a family at home."
And none of those names drew more of a reaction than Ryan Lochte, the Olympic swimmer who got in a wee bit of trouble during the Rio Olympics when he lied about the events of a post-party early morning and claimed he was held up at gunpoint by locals brandishing badges. It was a stain on the Olympics, but controversy like this can only help Dancing With the Stars. However, DWTS didn't need to do a hard press to snag Lochte. In fact, the way the casting process works, Lochte was on the DWTS shortlist long before the fib heard 'round the world.
"We were committed to Ryan," Wade says, revealing that Lochte was signed on before the Olympics ever started and Lochte's controversial actions didn't give him pause. "We use the show as a place where people can come on and tell their story. It's often been a show where people can come up and talk about things that have happened in their lives that are very positive and things that were more problematic, and we felt like for us, this is an opportunity for Ryan to come on and show his true self and dance on the show and have some fun. We certainly didn't feel like we should be pulling the offer away from him."
But still, while Wade believes Lochte's "Blame it on Rio" lie will blow over in time for the show's Sept. 12 start, I'm not so sure the fans will have such a short memory. However, DWTS is a great place to rehab in image, and the audience's reaction can easily be swayed by one thing: dancing, of course. "I think it's all going to depend on how he dances, quite honestly (laughs)," when asked how viewers will respond to Lochte. "I think we're a great place for him to come on and be himself, and people will judge him on how they see him in training, and how they see him on the dance floor. I honestly don't know how he'll do."
Can Lochte actually win the whole thing? Wade isn't ready to pick a favorite. Yet. "Until you actually see someone dance and the chemistry that happens with the couple, you can never really tell who's going to be the breakaway winner," he says before admitting something we can all relate to. "I'm notoriously bad at guessing, I get it wrong every time."
You can put me down for betting my house on the Mirror Ball trophy going to Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, one of the first stars to sign on for the season long before the Olympics. A gymnast who trains in the art of dextrous precision and competes before thousands? She's a lock! "There's no doubt that Laurie has a fantastic pedigree," Wade admits. "Having said that, a lot of dance is about maturity as well, and she's only 16 years old." And not to get too technical on you, but he's concerned about her size — Hernandez is a pint-sized 5-foot tall — and getting into the more complicated holds.
As Wade reminds me, a newbie to Dancing With the Stars, personality can be the X factor that sends someone to the winner's circle. So I asked him, which of the celebrities will surprise viewers with their charm? Without hesitation, he says, "Maureen McCormick. I think they're all great personalities, but Maureen certainly has surprised me, she's a lot of fun."
Wade also has a few sleepers whose charm may get them further than most think. In addition to noting how Lochte will surprise people, Wade is also high on former Texas governor and two-time presidential hopeful Rick Perry. "I think Rick Perry, former governor, is an absolutely charming man," Wade says. Plus, Perry has the backstory for joining the show that some may fall for.
"There are two reasons he's doing this, one is he's a veteran, and he's doing it to raise awareness for veterans and veterans charities," Wade says. "He feels quite strongly about that. But the other reason is that his daughter is getting married in October, and he wants to learn how to dance for her wedding. That's a brilliant reason to do Dancing With the Stars."
For those of you looking for fireworks between a star and a pro, Wade knows exactly where they'll find them. "Amber Rose and Maksim Chmerkovskiy," he says, before I can even finish the question. "That's going to be a fun one. In a good way, not in a combative way. They have very effervescent personalities. But Derek [Hough] and Marilu Henner, actually, is kind of amazing as well. I mean, the energy they give off..."
He's also incredibly excited about the deep pool of pro dancers on this season's docket. "We've got Derek, Maks and Cheryl [Burke] back, I could absolutely see Derek and Marilu going all the way, Cheryl and Ryan, and you know Maks coming back with Amber. If I were to guess what the storyline is now, we've got the best group of dancers we've ever had on the show. Not just because of the three of them, but because the others are so experienced. Valentin Chmerkovskiy is at the top of his powers. Whitney Carson is an old hand, Sharna Burgess, Lindsay Arnold, all these people we've come to know. I think it's going be a really competitive season."
It should also be packed with special episodes, though Wade acknowledges that there needs to be a balance between spectacle and competition. But at least one real-world event pressured DWTS to do something it's never done before.
"There's a lot of [presidential] debates in the first few weeks of the season, so we've jumped around with our schedule a bit, which has left us in Week 3 with just a one-hour show instead of a two-hour show," he says. "So we've had to create possibly one of the most impactful shows we've ever done. There will be 12 dances in one hour, the couples are going to have to face off against each other, so we're going to pair them into six different powers. Never has more dancing been done in one hour of television!"
Additionally, Dancing With the Stars is working on a Cirque de Soleil tie-in spectacular, bringing in the Andrés Ruis Orchestra (though that still has to be confirmed), hoping to bring back the Showstoppers episode, tying in one episode with Halloween and bringing in plenty of guest judges that will be announced later.
Dancing With the Stars returns Monday, Sept. 12 at 8/7c on ABC.