Roller Girls Roll Back in View
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: January 8, 2006
It all started with roller derby.
My weekend, that is. This was back when I was 10, and for a sports-obsessed boy in the days before cable television, there were few alternatives. Roller derby, then after that the high school football game of the week and finally the college games - the true goal of my Saturday view-a-thon.
Roller derby was a modest affair, several steps down in prestige from bowling and pro wrestling. The homespun telecasts consisted of hardly more than a single camera lazily trained on the track. That was part of its strange and hypnotic charm.
I watched on the family's hand-me-down TV, a black-and-white with rabbit-ear antennae, angled on my bedroom bureau so I could keep an eye on the women in skates while lofting baskets into a hoop on the back of my door. The rules of roller derby were mysterious, but it was a sport, and besides, these were women in teeny shorts.
Nowadays televised sports are a multibillion-dollar business, as loud and steroidally enhanced as some of the athletes. A million cable channels cater to every sports fetishist, like the fans in the movie "Dodgeball" glued to the fictional ESPN 8 ("The Ocho"). Forget that one lazy camera. Today even D-rank sports are presented as blockbuster events: tightly edited, overbearingly narrated and overdramatized - like reality television.
Speaking of which, I had thought roller derby died along with the Bee Gees, but it's now back on the air, as a new reality series on A&E. "Rollergirls" follows the lives, on skates and off, of young Texas women who work as nurses and teachers but whose real passion is donning helmets and schoolgirl outfits and bashing into each other.
A slick, superstylized presentation, the show delves into their back story - the boyfriends, the tattoos, the bruises, the cleavage and the reasonably worried moms. My clunky old roller derby show suddenly seems classy.
After all, moms aside, who really cares about the inner lives of roller skaters? "Rollergirls" masquerades as meaningful human drama, while the old-fashioned roller derby, in its cheesiness, was blessedly free of such malarkey, never pretending to be more than the violent, sexy cartoon it was.
Today boys might dip into "Rollergirls" for the violence and the women, but they'd do better on those scores with "Lost" or "Sleeper Cell." The true "Rollergirls" audience is the one that consumes "General Hospital," which tells you how far televised sports has strayed since I practiced my hook shot in my pajamas.
That shot was a beautiful thing, like the pleasure that came from having fewer choices on a Saturday morning.