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Celebrities may sweep viewers off their feet

Whether it's dancing or skating, there's something about seeing stars succeed -- or fail.

January 18, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

You have probably heard by now, if you didn't see it yourself, that Tatum O'Neal was cut from ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" last week -- I know, I know, she's a little high strung, but she was better than Master P, right? And she got the higher marks! But that's what happens when you give America half the vote; they're going to turn it into a popularity contest or perversely keep the clown around. Which generates just the sort of controversy the producers are after. It's all pretty transparent from where I sit.

As if this weren't enough excitement for one lifetime, tonight Fox premieres "Skating With Celebrities," a show nearly identical to "Dancing" except for its being on ice and not giving the viewers a say in the outcome. The name sounds almost like a joke, like "Bowling With the Well-Known" or "Surfing With the Vaguely Familiar." But it honestly describes the show, which "Dancing With the Stars" does not, unless "stars" refers to the professional ballroom dancers, who have all been at the top of their profession, and not to their largely less-illustrious amateur partners.

For a star may be a celebrity, but a celebrity is not always a star. A few of the contestants in these shows may be counted currently as stars, and some have been stars, but most are now just celebrities, famous for something but not especially busy at the moment. Yet one must not assume that these actors and news readers and sports figures are here because this is the best they can get, nor that this is all about clawing one's way back into the spotlight. It's true that we haven't seen much of Kristy Swanson or Todd Bridges lately, but that's show business, all valleys and peaks.

And "Dancing" is a hit, after all, as "Skating" may turn out to be, and the TV public has long since declared itself in favor of watching even sort of famous people play games, from "Hollywood Squares" to "Battle of the Network Stars" to "Celebrity Poker Showdown." I do weary quickly of the hammering hyperbole of "Dancing With the Stars" -- only in an alternative universe is George Hamilton "a Hollywood legend," and the phrase "10 of America's greatest celebrities" is, as far as I can work out, meaningless -- but you can count me as a fan of both shows. It is hard not to get swept up in them. There is something satisfying about watching difficult things performed well, especially when the point is to make it look easy, and especially when the performer is a person who might reasonably be expected to fail.

Of course, everyone brings different skills to the table -- to the floor, to the ice -- and it quickly becomes apparent in both series which contestants will be the sooner to go and which the later. (The professionals are impressively high-caliber: The skating talent is made up of nothing but world champions and Olympic medalists, including judge Dorothy Hamill -- be still, my heart -- and host Scott Hamilton.) Frankly, I could do without the eliminations. I don't care who wins, and I never want anybody to lose; indeed, it's the struggling stragglers whose progress interests me the most, though they will ultimately be seen the least.

Notwithstanding that the participants do clearly want to win, or at least not lose, having worked hard to not make complete fools of themselves on national television, "Dancing" and "Skating" maintain an air of Good Fun that compares favorably to "American Idol," where it's deemed OK to abuse the contestants because they're wannabe stars and not just amateurs on a lark. The judges (who, one might say, play characters based on themselves) have adjusted their standards for the present situation and don't seem to take seriously the booing that automatically occurs whenever any of them dares to criticize a performance or award a score of under 7 points.

So alike are these series that I sometimes could not remember who were the dancing celebrities and who were the skating, or which show's curmudgeonly British judge was which. Neither is the distance between ballroom dancing and figure skating all that far -- each activity is swathed in a spangly glamour that begins to look authentically glorious after the bodies are in motion.

*

`Skating With Celebrities'

Where: Fox

When: 9 to 10 tonight

*

`Dancing With the Stars'

Where: ABC

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

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