Rollergirls: a made-for-TV spectacle.

What you're watching.
Jan. 3 2006 2:48 PM

Roll Models

Rollergirls puts all-female roller derby in its rightful place: television.

Rollergirls strap on their skates and come out swinging
Rollergirls strap on their skates and come out swinging

Rollergirls, which debuted Monday night on A&E (10 p.m. ET), is a production of Gary and Julie Auerbach, the couple who invented MTV's Laguna Beach. The earlier show was a slab of SoCal teen intrigue that pressed reality TV into new terrain. With its cinematic mid-shots, its half-scripted scenarios played naturalistically, and the lascivious slickness of its production values, Laguna Beach set a glossy new standard for televoyeurism. Building on the show's innovations and on its themes of pack behavior and female aggression, Rollergirls promises a diverting 13 episodes of semi-quasi-documentary. It is about a roller derby league in Austin, Texas, and it looks inevitable.

Yes, hipsters have resurrected all-female roller derby. This is surely camp, but do not mistake it for irony: The women of Rollergirls are every bit as serious as the trash-talking wheelchair rugby players of the recent documentary Murderball, and they search for release as assiduously as Tony Manero did in Saturday Night Fever. Boasting noms de guerre on the order of Miss Conduct, Punky Bruiser, and Jackie O'Nasty, they suit up in uniforms involving bodices, garters, kneepads, mascara, mouth guards, frilly kick pants, and, in the case of a squad called the Holy Rollers, Catholic schoolgirl outfits. The morning after a night at the track, they wake to bruises, "track burn," and, given the enthusiasm for tequila in these precincts, hangovers worthy of Martin Amis novels. Some members of a team called Putas del Fuego—I'm inclined to translate that as "Hell Whores"—have the word putas tattooed on the insides of their mouths.

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The first episode offers a classic drama of initiation. Its star is Melissa—a promising rookie going by the name Venis Envy, a plain-faced American sweetheart, an art-school graduate with a dreary 9-to-5. Of the importance of roller derby in her life, she says, "This is uplifting." She is a Puta preparing for a bout against the Rhinestone Cowgirls, her first, in which she will square off against a glamorous veteran named Lux. The audience gathered around the banked track will include her mother. "I'd love my mom to love what I'm doing," she says, over a soundtrack featuring not only the solemn toll of a church bell but also a sultry rendition of "Amazing Grace." Would you bet that Venis wins Mom's pride? That she earns Lux's respect? That the show-closing montage of highlights from the coming season is pretty gnarly?

As sports television, Rollergirls is unsatisfactory, the camerawork too close and frantic to give you much sense of the shape of a bout or of the strategy involved in winning one. Rather, the producers rely on crowd reactions, slow-motion spills, and what cinematographers refer to as "butt shots." Nonetheless, the show has something to say about athletics. While any student of Michael Jordan or John McEnroe will be familiar with the intensity of these dames, anyone who has ever played in an after-work softball league will recognize their ego clashes and petty politics.

In any event, the experts call roller derby, which first emerged as a Depression-era competitor of marathon dancing, America's first "spectacle sport," which is another way of saying that it was made for TV.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.