Bill Nye the Science Guy’s much-touted appearance on the new season of Dancing with the Stars came to an abrupt end last night when he failed to garner enough fan votes to make up for the low scores his dancing earned from the judges, and was sent home. Oh, and he also tore his quadrucep while performing the night before, but insisted on performing anyway — if there were bonus points for perseverance, he might have made it another week.
We were rooting for him here at the cocktail party. I grew up in Seattle, where Bill Nye got his acting start on a local sketch comedy show called “Almost Live,” after leaving a job at Boeing, where he was a mechanical engineer and occasionally acted in training videos. He tried to correct the host’s pronunciation of “gigawatt” and the host retorted, “Who do you think you are? Bill Nye the Science Guy?” The name stuck and he’s been the Science Guy ever since, celebrating both science and goofy geekitude in equal measure, clad in his trademark lab coat and bowtie.
There aren’t too many science types that make it onto a show like Dancing with the Stars (although Nye is technically an “edutainer” despite his mechanical engineering background), apart from Buzz Aldrin’s notable appearance a couple of years ago (he also went home the second week). It was, admittedly, a bit of stunt casting. Nye kicked off his own DWTS stint with a colorful cha-cha sequence set to the pop tune “Weird Science”:
To be frank, Nye’s not that great a dancer, despite having done a bit of swing dancing in the past. This performance didn’t garner rave reviews from the judges. “It was like being waxed. Painful while it happened and lovely when it was over,” per head judge Len Goodman. “You’re willing but you’re not that able.” Nye and his partner, Tyne Stecklein, scored 14 out of a possible 30, the lowest score of the night.
The media wasn’t much more forgiving. CNET declared Nye “looked like a praying mantis on ecstasy,” and also wasn’t very impressed with his awkward attempts at flirtation with Steicklein during the backstage footage, in which he called their pairing a prime example of “beauty and the geek” and insisted they be known as “Hot Knowledge” on the show because the best dancing couples have “sexual tension.” (Yeah, that bit fell flat for Jen-Luc Piquant, too, but Steicklein took it all in stride, even when he tried to educate her on the difference between a flask and a beaker.)
His appearance also garnered the usual anxious hand-wringing about the scientist stereotypes depicted in the routine, with Business Insider‘s Jennifer West declaring Nye’s performance was “bad for science” because it reinforced stereotypes of the older, awkward white male mad scientist in a lab coat. That’s a bit of stretch and a lot to lay at Nye’s nimble feet. He did what he’s always done with his public persona. Unless West argued that Nye’s entire career has been bad for science (she did not, claiming to be a fan of the show), I’m not buying it.
The same criticism frequently gets lobbed at The Big Bang Theory, currently the most popular sitcom on TV; its season premiere racked up 20 million viewers and the nerdy characters are very much beloved. So is Nye, judging by the crowd’s reaction to the routine. That’s just one reason why Physics Buzz declared that “from a science outreach perspective, his performance was awesome.”
To Nye’s credit, he took the criticisms in stride, admitting to being “disappointed in myself,” and vowed to do better the following week. And then, during a Beethoven-inspired paso doble Monday night, Nye stumbled, disastrously:
Nye had to have been in a lot of pain as another round of disappointing scores came in from the judges, but we didn’t learn just how badly he’d been hurt until last night. He tore 80% of his quad muscle, and the consulting doctor pretty much told him he was done dancing until it healed. But Nye decided he wanted to try anyway, protecting the injury by keeping the muscle as immobile as possible. Stecklein gamely choreographed a routine to Daft Punk that kept his movement to a minimum, with Nye as a dancing robot. It wasn’t elegant, but it was a clever concept, and Nye danced his way through the pain and into a few million more hearts, with a supportive crowd chanting “Bill! Bill! Bill!”
It wasn’t enough to save him from elimination, but that’s probably a good thing, given his injury. And Nye has no regrets: “People don’t regret what they do. They regret what they don’t do.” The judges continued to be underwhelmed by his dancing, but all of them applauded his courage and tenacity in understanding that the show must go on, even if it means working through the pain. In that moment, the geeky misfit truly belonged.
That’s the real significance of Nye’s decision to appear on the show: he rose above the obvious stunt casting. He won the crowd’s admiration not for being the smartest guy in the room, or being the best dancer, or for shocking people by not fitting their stereotype of a scientist. He won it because he was willing to be vulnerable and do something difficult that was WAAAY out of his comfort zone — and make no mistake, Dancing With the Stars is frickin’ hard work for the celebrities that participate. He gave it his all, went along with the whole cheesy extravaganza and joined in the fun, rather than keeping himself apart.
Bad for science? I don’t think so. Now go take care of that leg, Bill Nye, so you may dance again.