Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Dancing With The Stars

I’m not sure Ethel Merman ever wore khakis, but boy could she sing. (And project throughout the tristate area without a microphone.)

Old Ethel belts out her signature rendition of “Anything You Can Do” from Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun, music that animates this delightful Gap spot. Against that famous war- of-the-sexes tune, Claire Danes and Patrick Wilson perform a pas de pants. Actually, that’s apt—for most of the commercial, Danes wears no pants. The beautiful, beaming and talented couple compete in a novel pants-off dance-off (in perfect juxtaposition to the lyric “anything you can wear, I can wear better”) to sell the brand’s new boyfriend trouser for women.

Unlike previous Gap work featuring oddly paired celebs like Sarah Jessica Parker and Lenny Kravitz, and Missy Elliott and Madonna, the “yes-I-can-yes-I-can” attitude is so strong that the star power is almost secondary. The fact that the spot features Ms. Shopgirl and the prom king from Little Children of course makes it richer and more memorable. But the commercial could star any two talented dancers because the energy between them seems so natural, joyous and unforced. (Who knew Danes could dance like this? As Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, she tended to galumph around.)

As directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the spot practically pops off the screen with goodwill. In that way, it brings back the concentrated joy of the khakis-swing era from Gap ads past (1998-2000). In those spots, Gap linked its clothing to a basic American art form and, through a series of exuberant TV commercials, managed to democratize and popularize both.

This latest take is simple, clean (as in stripped down to basics) and entertaining. (Amazing, in this day and age, and given Danes’ pants-lessness, that it comes off as almost pure and innocent.) As such, it has a throwback appeal—like watching a short clip of an amusing piece of American musical theater.

The casting, choreography and dancing are first rate. So smart and subtle is the design that even the stage curtains are khaki, and they open to reveal golden lighting and a gleaming wood floor. Wilson, wearing a white shirt and khaki pants, makes a move and then Danes, in her big shirt and bare legs, á la Judy Garland, copies his steps and tries to outdo him. The steps get increasingly complicated until, with a quick, deft and unexpected slide, Danes snatches her partner’s pants off. (Obviously, they are trick pants, and she puts on another pair.) In the end, he’s left stripped to his boxers (but still looking clean-cut!) triumphantly holding her aloft.

The idea that they both come out winners—she wins the contest, he wins her heart—is part of the throwback romantic allure. Image-wise, it could not be better: It’s sweet, simple and iconic.

Alas, if only things could be this simple (and cured by one hit commercial) for the Gap, which has suffered 10 consecutive quarters of declining sales due to a combination of dull product offerings and increasing competition from hip, high-fashion, knockoff outlets like H&M and Zara.

Here, again, the problem is the merch—the boyfriend trouser. (Although it’s a fashion term, “trouser” sounds kind of pretentious.) The “boyfriend” part of the name is good. It diverts attention from what they are (khakis! argh!) and also carries with it the suggestion of sex: college kids spending the night together and then, the following morning, the young woman borrowing her BF’s pants to sneak out and avoid “the walk of shame.”

But despite the commercial’s widespread appeal (young and old, male and female), the product is good for a limited target—say 19-year-old Estonian supermodels or women who want to look like 14-year-old skater boys. I’d say they are pretty much a disaster for anyone with hips.

Ironically, due to the nature of the traveling pants, Danes sports only a “boyfriend”-type shirt, sans culottes, and looks great. Wilson wears the pants for the most part—but not the ones the spot is selling, which are actually tailored for women. (There is some good-looking print with some good-looking people promoting a vast array of khaki products “with attitude.” I thought the whole point of khaki is that it didn’t have attitude.) Anyway, at the very end, we get a split-second shot of Danes finally wearing the pants, but she’s slouching just like her former character, Angela—which no doubt speaks to fans of My So-Called Life even more. But it also suggests that even if you’re as regal and skinny as Danes, you have to hunch into the right angle for the pants to look decent.

Certainly, overall, the message is cheery and contagious, and speaks to the Gap heritage; it’s deeply on brand. The problem with the boyfriend trouser, however, is that it also is “on brand,” too much so, in that the Gap needs some exciting new merch, not an excavation of past hits.