On Monday's "Dancing With the Stars," four couples gave two performances each and were scored by three judges. Out of the 24 scores given over the course of the evening, half of them were 10s. (Ten of them were nines and the last two were eights.)
Some of this was ordinary end-of-season score inflation, some of it was the natural result of casting both an Olympic ice skater and a professional dancer. But some of it was the legitimate result of a very strong night of performances.
Nicole Scherzinger and Derek Hough continued their Godzilla-like stomp through the competition, scoring a perfect 30 points for their marvelous and inventive Argentine tango and 29 points for their cha-cha.
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The bigger surprise was that Evan Lysacek and Anna Trebunskaya stayed right with them this week, with 29 points for an energetic, upbeat foxtrot that was the first dance of the season to take full advantage of the warmly goofy part of Evan's personality that isn't typically showcased in his skating. (In fact, particularly in his rivalry with Johnny Weir, he has sometimes seemed like kind of a stiff.) Evan and Anna followed this up with a convincingly heart-pounding paso doble in which Evan, even with his impossibly long and thin legs, conveyed the muscular presence required for the dance and earned a perfect 30.
A few points behind the leaders were Erin Andrews and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who managed 27 points for a good waltz right out of the gate, and then scored two nines and a 10 for their paso doble, which really showed off Erin's improved confidence over the early weeks.
Chad Ochocinco had the toughest week of the four finalists, but that's relative: He stayed right with Erin with 27 points for a waltz, but was then tripped up just a little by his samba, which was energetic but not as polished as some of the dances he's done. He earned 25 points for the latter dance, a very respectable score on a 30-point scale, but it was enough to leave him seven points behind the leaders and three points behind Erin.
Host Tom Bergeron announced at the top of the show that all the couples have led the audience voting at least once, so if Chad's fans rally, he could certainly stay in it. But he'll need votes to overcome that gap.
One interesting note from the evening was a pattern of acknowledgments of what's become the elephant in the room this season: the fact that the celebrities involved have massively different levels of dance training.
First, a discouraged Chad told Cheryl in rehearsal that she should just get a hugely talented partner so she could have an easier time, "like Derek." To which Cheryl said, "That's not what the show's about."
When Chad danced, judge Len Goodman went out of his way to note that Chad is the only remaining celebrity with no prior dance training. Even one of Chad's kids said it in a clip, noting that her dad was doing pretty great, given that he had "no dance training."
At the same time, nobody wanted to throw Nicole under the bus of ringerhood, so Carrie Ann Inaba was careful to say after the cha-cha that although it might seem like all the styles came completely naturally to Nicole, Carrie Ann was sure they actually didn't. In that sense, the show seemed to be simultaneously acknowledging a weakness in the season and insisting that it wasn't quite as significant as it might appear.
Everybody involved in the season has overcome something: Erin isn't as tentative as she once was, Nicole has gotten smoother with ballroom choreography, Chad has figured out how to combine his high energy with significantly more precision and Evan has stopped turning his feet in exotic directions that draw attention to his tiny ankles.
And during next week's finale, we'll find out who made enough progress — or started out in a good enough position to begin with — to take home that ugly, ugly trophy.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington.