[23 January 2006]
In the reality show midway, Fox is the shrewdest carnival barker. Whenever a new sub-genre finds success in the field (cattle call matchmaking, wife-swapping), Fox wastes no time creating its own version, pushing the premise to a self-parodying extreme, slapping on an exploitative title like The Littlest Groom, and waiting for us slack-jawed rubes to line up at the gate. Once inside the tent, we realize we’ve been had. Our basest instincts were ruthlessly pandered to and we were all too willing. Who wants to marry a millionaire? Oh yeah, fourth-rate actresses desperate for face time.
Still, you can’t help but appreciate the chutzpah that went into Skating with Celebrities, essentially, Dancing with the Stars meets the Ice Capades. At least the template is good-natured, descending more from a Circus of the Stars-style amateur night than the rubbernecking of VH1’s tragic celebreality series.
Skating with Celebrities presumes that the addition of sharp silver blades on cold hard ice ups the fall-on-their-ass humiliation factor, while Fox mooches off our ongoing love affair with figure skating (reaching a fever pitch with the Winter Olympics around the corner). Professional skaters also provide well known names, along with the stars (as opposed to unknown ballroom dancers). And who doesn’t love to hear the name Tai Babilonia trip off the tongue?
Unfortunately, while it’s possible that over the course of a few weeks one may acquire a certain passable finesse at ballroom dancing, the odds are much less likely in ice skating. Either you’re out of your element or you’re not. Already, two pairs, Jillian Barberie and John Zimmerman and Dave “Cut It Out” Coulier and Nancy Kerrigan, tower above the others if only because Coulier and Barberie possess basic skating know-now. The best that most non-pros can manage is to stay upright, wave their arms to the music, and let the pros do the heavy lifting. It’s not fun to watch.
Each week, stakes are raised, as the required routines become more difficult. And each episode has a theme. The first episode’s was “movies,” which in the world of figure skating means An Officer and a Gentleman and Chorus Line-inspired outfits.
The panel of judges is certainly no help. They follow the American Idol template to such an extreme that their commentary comes across as scripted and the audience reactions sound canned. Figure skating coach Sir John Nicks plays the cartoonishly priggish Brit, Dorothy Hamill the compassionate grown-up princess, and Mark Lund the supportive but occasionally harsh third wheel. Their scoring doesn’t really match their commentary and doesn’t follow any apparent logic.
The judges’ scoring underlines one of the show’s greatest faults: the sloppy orchestration of its drama. Like most Fox reality quickies, the show feels hastily slapped together. Prior to each performance, a short behind-the-scenes documentary is supposed to establish the “characters,” but they’re uninspired and have nothing to do with the routines that follow. Sadly, Todd Bridges has already blown his “whatjyou talking’ about?” moment in reply to a tepid Nicks insult. You have to save that stuff for the finals. By the end of the first episode, there was no sense of a competition under way and it doesn’t help that nobody was kicked off either.
But I have to give Bridges credit. Looking at the cast list, I never would’ve thought he’d be the life of the party, but there he was shimmying like a Roll Bounce extra to Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” with glorious “Who gives a fuck?” abandon. The other contestants all look like they’re enjoying themselves, but they’re not trying very hard to entertain. This show should be all about transparent theater, blatantly overemphasized “rivalries,” and pushin’ it to the limit histrionics—basically the same Bob Costas-narrated hoo-ha that sells the Olympics. Bridges is the only skater who seems to understand that the show is a joke, and that it can be a fun joke. So, to his competitors: follow Todd’s lead, and let figure skating’s sequin-spangled freak flag fly.