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With skated purpose

A&E's 'Rollergirls' is a reality series that is sharp-looking, avoids irony and invites caring for its derby stories.

January 02, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

From its opening moments, "Rollergirls," a new "non-scripted drama series" from A&E about the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls of Austin, Texas -- one of the first of the grass-roots roller derby leagues that have been popping up around the country over the last few years -- makes an impression just by looking good.

Produced by Gary and Julie Auerbach of Go Go Luckey Productions, who are also responsible for MTV's "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County," it's a reality show with an aesthetic consciousness. A "heightened reality" show, one might call it, but one which makes its subject palpable and which, because it is made with care, lets you care too. It's the more artful portrait, paradoxically, that paints the truer picture.

Shot with multiple cameras using longer lenses (which not only makes the camera less intrusive but reduces distortion), its visual values are highly cinematic -- the colors vibrant, the images deep, the framing and composition rooted in contemporary art photography, or at least to the commercial photography and music videos that steal from it. (Jennifer Lane and Shane F. Kelly are the directors of photography here.)

These are no small things: One of the worst things about reality television is that most of it looks cheap and ugly, a mix of wide angles, dead lighting, nervous editing and restless pans to convey as much information as possible and to create superficial excitement. There's little beauty there, even in the makeover shows. "Rollergirls," by contrast, is luminous and luxuriously alive.

It's clear that certain exchanges, maybe even scenes, have been suggested by the producers to reap necessary exposition or accentuate a point, but it's clear too that something real and essentially unmodified is being captured. Certainly, the occasional creative nudge doesn't make me like the show any less, or not so much less that it matters. More than a decade into the reality revolution, we know how these games work. "Rollergirls" doesn't claim to be what it's not, in any case; in production notes the skaters are referred to as "main cast" and "supporting cast"

And that mix of the actual and the guided -- "invented" is perhaps too strong a word -- reflects roller derby itself, a real contest that is also blatantly a performance, simultaneously staged and unstaged. (TXRD calls itself a "sports and entertainment company.") The skaters themselves embody that symbiosis of the real and invented: By taking on new personas -- and new names, like Lux, Sister Mary Jane, Punky Bruiser, Miss Conduct, Venis Envy, Cha Cha -- they become more intensely themselves. The show is a tribute to self-invention, empowerment and sisterhood, which is not to say that the women necessarily hold similar views on the subjects or on one another.

By day, they work as waitresses, clerks, secretaries. One is a welder. Some have kids. Two of the fiercest competitors, and most charismatic, are a pediatric nurse and a special education teacher. They live in apartments, trailers, shotgun shacks. Their collective vision of glamour embraces chola culture, punk culture, trailer park culture, cowgirl culture, body-mod culture, and the burlesque revival. And though, like the burlesque revival, there is a parodic element to the presentation, it is also free from irony. It's too difficult and physical and demanding a pursuit for that.

The opening episode, which follows rookie Venis Envy as she prepares to skate her first bout, uses the narrative of the innocent new girl in town versus the knowing old pro; it's almost like a remake of "Stage Door." (The actual competitions are terrifically exciting, even to one not specifically a fan.) Venis is the series' first star, with an ingenue's sweetness and reserve -- she gets upset when she hurts an opposing skater who is also her idol.

But in the end, exchanging toasts with her rival, she is liberated and transformed.



Where: A&E

When: 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for language).


Sister Mary Jane...Herself

Punky Bruiser...Herself

Miss Conduct...Herself

Venis Envy...Herself

Cha Cha...Herself

Executive producer: Nancy Dubuc. Creators and executive producers: Gary and Julie Auerbach.

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