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Joe Viles / FOX
Todd Bridges, skating with Jenni Meno? Whatchoo talkin' about, Willis?
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/18/2006 11:06:31 AM ET 2006-01-18T16:06:31

You. Your couch. A bowl of popcorn. Your television. An ice skater. A moment of anticipation. A disaster. Humiliation, awkward audience politeness… it’s better than you could have hoped. Respect for sport aside, this is the real reason people watch the Olympics. Now ask yourself what could make this classic moment even better. The answer is clear: the skater should be Todd Bridges.

Fox can be counted on to act as the Awesomeness Network in a certain delightfully embarrassing way, and “Skating With Celebrities” (Wednesday, Jan. 18, and thereafter Mondays, 8 p.m. ET) is here to carry on the tradition. Shamelessly ripping off “Dancing With The Stars” in both concept and title, this show is here to remind you that not only will low-wattage public figures happily risk abject humiliation for a chance to get back into the public eye; they will also happily risk severe head trauma. It’s all about priorities, after all.

Joining Todd Bridges (not a hypothetical, you see) as celebrity skaters are Bruce “I Get Older; My Face Only Gets Tighter” Jenner, Dave “Uncle Joey” Coulier, Kristy “Buffy… No, The Other Buffy” Swanson, Deborah “Shake Your Love” Gibson, and Jillian “Miscellaneous Television Appearances” Barberie.

They’ve been assigned professional partners largely drawn from the same ageless rotation that’s been populating Sunday afternoon exhibitions for years: Jenni Meno, Tai Babilonia, Lloyd Eisler, Kurt Browning, and John Zimmerman. And, of course, Nancy Kerrigan. Can’t have a ice-based national embarrassment without Nancy Kerrigan!

Traditionalists will want to look to the judging panel. Along with John Nicks (currently Sasha Cohen’s coach) and a guy named Mark Lund who is apparently some sort of ice-skating muckraker, you will find the lovely Dorothy Hamill, still sporting the same haircut she had during the 1976 Olympics. Can you imagine your publicist not letting you change your hair for 30 years?

Can shotput skills translate to sit spins?
The celebrities have been reasonably well chosen — it’s a good mix of the formerly famous like Jenner, the formerly infamous like Bridges, and the famous-only-in-Los-Angeles like Barberie. (She is probably the only person still listing “Good Morning, Miami” on her CV.) In other words, they’ve done a good job finding people who are unimportant enough that they’re willing to fall down, but famous enough that it’s fun to watch them fall down.

Early favorites are hard to identify, as there’s no early word on which celebrities have skating experience. Bridges may have some karmic advantage as a veteran of “Battle Of The Network Stars,” the “Skating With Celebrities” of the ‘70s. Coulier is one of those guys like Alan Thicke about whom it is somehow common knowledge that he plays hockey, so at least he’s been on the ice before. Jenner has the advantage in natural athletic talent, although it isn’t clear whether the shot put can be translated into the sit spin.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Some of the professional skaters are reliably fun to watch. Kurt Browning is always a hoot, if only because of his tendency to occasionally materialize in leather pants. John Zimmerman, a veteran of pairs skating, is so blisteringly hot that he once made a mockery of his “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” makeover, which consisted of little more than straightening his collar. He and Barberie appear to be the hands-down aesthetic favorites.

And it’s nice seeing a skater like Tai Babilonia age gracefully in the public eye 25 years after the year that made her famous. That is, if skating with Bruce Jenner can be considered a feat of grace.

The most obvious challenge “Skating” faces is looking like a pitiful copycat in a field of performance shows that already includes some powerful contenders. One of the endless parade of audition shows for this season of Fox’s own “American Idol” is providing the premiere’s lead-in and possibly the cushiest slot on television in which to bow, aside from after the Super Bowl.

Big ratings for the first couple of weeks of “Dancing With The Stars” suggest that audiences have not yet lost their patience with the genre. Furthermore, there are a couple of key differences between this and shows like “Idol” and “Dancing.” The most obvious is that this is not a live, audience-participation show. It uses a weekly-elimination format, but the eliminations are based solely on the judges’ scores, not on any populist intervention.

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Opting out of audience participation robs “Skating” of the opportunity to build the kind of overinvested out-and-out fan weirdness that has driven inexplicable phenomena like Clay Aiken and Constantine Maroulis, and that has undeniably contributed to the “Idol” mystique. On the other hand, despite the existence of a core group of power voters who devote their lives for months to advocating for a particular contestant, most people who watch “Idol” or “Dancing” don’t actually vote, and they may not care.

Still, consider the fact that Master P has survived two weeks of “Dancing” based on viewer voting, despite being not only the worst dancer on the show, but undoubtedly the first man to ever do a quickstep that could be described as “grudging.” That offers a refresher course in a lesson “Idol” has taught many times: viewers have a strange fascination with very, very bad performers.

People may similarly tune in to “Skating” to see extravagantly incompetent people landing on their faces. Unlike Master P, those people cannot be saved by diabolical fans. If party-pooper judges send the train wrecks packing in the first week or two and we’re left watching bad — but not disastrous — beginner figure skating, the show could find itself in trouble.

But there is an X-factor of sorts at play here that “Dancing” and “Idol” do not share: the serious possibility of physical harm. Far from hiding this fact, Fox is running with it: the promos feature an injury to Swanson that leaves her bleeding. While this may seem like a dramatic hook, it could easily backfire. Humiliation is one thing, but audiences don’t actually want to see anyone seriously hurt — quite possibly the reason this show is not live.

The greatest challenge may be perfecting the choreography so that the celebrity skaters are seriously challenged — not looking like bored insurance executives skating around the pond on a Sunday morning — without either falling down every 10 seconds or landing in the emergency room. The worst thing that will happen if your rumba is too difficult, after all, is that Lisa Rinna will sprain something. But ask Bruce Jenner to throw you around when he’s not ready, and you’re looking at a body cast.

Fox has made a habit of cannibalizing popular shows on other networks (“Trading Spouses,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss,” and others) and simply testing whether it can go along for the ride. And if you’re the kind of person who thought that only broken bones could have made Kenny Mayne’s cha-cha any better, this may just be the ride for you.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn., and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.

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