[Update, Jan. 24: On Jan. 23, Todd Bridges and Jenni Meno were the first skating duo to get kicked off of Skating with Celebrities.]
Last summer, when ABC premiered the bizarre reality competition Dancing With the Stars, the network was taking a real risk. Sure, you could say that the show was a ripoff of American Idol, but pairing C-list performers with professional ballroom dancers in a weekly televised dance-off was a weird enough idea that it had to sink or swim on its own merits. And Dancing departed from Idol by creating its own aesthetic, with an unashamedly retro set, fruity costumes, and a sunny, supportive panel of judges that left the Simon Cowell humiliation model far behind.
Now Fox is plagiarizing the formula of ABC’s runaway hit with the lamely titled Skating With Celebrities (how about Lugeing With the Vaguely Recognizable? Curling With Acquaintances?). As with Fox’s other flagrant intellectual-property grabs (Nanny 911, Trading Spouses), all pretense of developing an original concept has been dropped: Skating is Dancing on ice, with a few slight variants (for example, the audience call-in vote has been eliminated). And yet—I hate to admit it, but—Skating With Celebrities works. It’s a silly, sweet-natured waste of time, and (unlike the tortured caterwauling of the American Idol contestants) it’s utterly irresistible.
Part of the show’s appeal is, unquestionably, its timing: With the Winter Olympics less than a month away, the American audience needs to warm up for its quadrennial love affair with girls in sparkly dresses twirling on ice. There’s also the fact that, as a result of said love affair, we’re likely to recognize not only the amateur celebrity skaters, but some of their pro partners: Tai Babilonia and Nancy Kerrigan, for example, were both household names during their Olympic runs. Kerrigan is mismatched with the former Full House star Dave Coulier, a longtime hockey enthusiast whose burly, athletic style melds poorly with her fairy-princess elegance. (In fact, the class-inflected contrast between the two recalls Kerrigan’s widely publicized Olympic battle with Tonya Harding in 1994. When the judges score their performance a little lower than Coulier might have liked, you half-expect him to haul off and hit her in the knees.) But the producers were inspired when they paired Babilonia with fellow ‘70s Olympian Bruce Jenner, who at 55 is the John O’Hurley of this competition: a courtly older gentleman who makes up for his lack of experience with hard work and buckets of charm.
Babilonia and Jenner have to be my favorite couple in the competition so far, a pair of old-school athletes gamely taping up their injuries to compete once more. But it’s also hard not to root for Todd Bridges, the erstwhile Willis of Diff’rent Strokes, who’s since been through the former child-star mill of small-time brushes with the law. Bridges breaks an unwritten rule of washed-up-celeb etiquette: Do not showcase your has-been-itude with explicit references to your days in the sun. When the toughest of the three judges (John Nicks, a legendary skating coach) calls Bridges out on his clumsy footwork, Bridges narrows his eyes and blurts, “What you talkin’ ‘bout?” This is disturbing on several levels—not least the fact that was Gary Coleman’s catchphrase on Diff’rent Strokes, not Bridges’. Willis is, by definition, he who is asked “What you talkin’ ‘bout?”, not he who asks it. On the ice, Bridges looks hefty, a little unsteady—he even takes a fall in the second episode, to the horrified gasps of the crowd—but something about his underdog status, the fact he really seems to need this, makes him an audience favorite.
Other celebrity contestants include Kristy Swanson (the original, big-screen Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the ‘80s pop star Deborah Gibson, and Jillian Barberie, a Fox sportscaster whose fierce competitiveness and Type-A personality seem to be setting her up as the official bitch of the show.
To avoid spoilers, the crucial final scores were edited out of the press screeners, so I have no idea who makes it through the first cut of the competition(which is slated to run seven episodes, just through the end of the Winter Olympics). I’m not suggesting anyone make appointment viewing out of anything so goofy as Skating With Celebrities. But if I happen to be watching TV anyway next Wednesday night, I might just skate on by.