Well you can play my game, if you just tell me your name.
A brief history of the roller derby:
The 1930s: During the Depression, marathon sports were inexplicably popular for a while. This included marathon skating, in which skaters circled a track for hours on end, kind of like an Indy 500 on legs instead of cars. Audiences went nuts whenever one skater lapped another, especially when the opposing skater tried to block him or her. Clever promoters saw an opportunity, and quickly created a sport based on just that. Thus was born roller derby, a contact sport in which the objective is to lap opposing players while skating around a banked oval track. Incredible popularity followed.
The 1960s-1970s: After it was seemingly forgotten for a decade or so, the derby gained new life thanks to television. This was the height of the sport’s popularity, when it created national celebrities, such as the always-outrageous Ann Calvello. No matter how unfamiliar someone might be with roller derby, you can bet he or she has heard of the L.A. T-Birds somewhere.
The 1980s: Inspired by the success of MTV, RollerGames made its notorious debut. This completely insane take on roller derby included a figure-eight track with a vertical wall at one end, a jumping ramp, and rock bands playing at postgame parties. Most infamously, ties were broken by having the floor under the track open to reveal an alligator pit beneath it, adding an extra-special element of danger for skaters. I swear I’m not making this up.
The 1990s: WSL Rollerjam promised to breathe new life into the sport, putting the athletes on inline skates. Although it started out strong enough, with some genuinely exciting skating action, its producers seemed determined to mimic professional wrestling. They added several poorly scripted elements such as long-lost brothers, an ill-fated wedding, and an evil league manager clearly patterned after wrestling’s Vince McMahon. The clumsily manufactured soap opera plots quickly became the point of the show, with the actual games being little more than an afterthought. Cancellation was merciful.
2006: Somewhere in Texas, a grassroots effort starts to revive the derby yet again. Meanwhile, on TV, so-called reality programming has conquered the airwaves. Combine the two, and here come the Rollergirls!
Rollergirls: The Complete Season One chronicles the 2005 season of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, based out of Austin, Texas. There are five all-girl teams: the Rhinestone Cowgirls, the Holy Rollers, the Hellcats, the Cherry Bombs, and the Putas Del Fuego (PDF). In between games—or “bouts,” to use their lingo—the show’s creators turn their cameras to the ladies’ daily lives, which range from heartbreaking to completely goofy.
Sister Mary Jane of the Holy Rollers is considering leaving the league to move with her boyfriend to Maui. Fellow Holy Roller Punky Bruiser is an aspiring stand-up comedian who can make anyone laugh—except when she’s on stage. Cha Cha of the PDF balances her skating life with raising her little girl. Lux of the Rhinestone Cowgirls is getting very serious with her boyfriend, but is she ready for a relationship this serious? Meanwhile, Venis Envy of the PDF is nervous about her first bout, and Miss Conduct of the Holy Rollers is just having a good time.
All these personal dramas then build to a climax on the banked track at each week’s bout. Two teams face off on the track with five players each, one jammer and four blockers. The jammers are the speedsters, who race around the track to lap the blockers, who, obviously, try to block them. The jammers earn one point for each opposing player they pass. There’s no holding, no hair pulling, no pushing toward the inside of the track, and absolutely, positively no fighting allowed. But those last four rules are more like suggestions, apparently.
See jammers blast around the track at top speed. See blockers send them flying over the rail into the crowd. See skaters hit the floor hard, with bruises and blood to show for it. See Lux and Sister Mary Jane settle their rivalry with their fists. See star jammers like Sister Mary Jane score a miraculous 10 points in a single jam—the roller derby equivalent of a baseball grand slam. See crowds full of beer-fueled Texans cheer like mad for their favorite teams. And then, when the bout is over, the ladies regroup to get in touch with their feelings and learn a valuable lesson, only to beat the living snot out of each other again a week later.
Many people love football and baseball. Even more love basketball. Others love golf for some reason. But me? I love the roller derby. Oh, stop looking at me like that. I can’t help it. Maybe it’s super-violent action and the borderline sense of anarchy. Maybe it’s the sexy ladies. Maybe it’s the “alone at the laundromat” enjoyment of watching something going around and around in a circle. Maybe there’s no explanation—maybe it’s just because it’s roller derby.
I’ve often wondered just what path a woman’s life takes to the point where she makes the decision to become a roller derby girl. Well, thanks to this series and its glimpses into the daily lives of the skaters, I have a better idea. What’s striking is how self-confident they all are. These women can accomplish anything and kick anyone’s butt simply because they know they can accomplish anything and kick anyone’s butt. They’re filled with life, for lack of a better phrase. As depicted in this series, the skaters have no “down time.” Whether laughing with friends, dealing with some drama at home, or getting lost while driving around Texas, they’re constantly at high energy, living every moment to its fullest. For example, when most people move into a new place, they have a housewarming party. But when Lux, Venis, and their boyfriends move into a new place, their housewarming is an elaborately produced fashion show that temporarily converts their new home into an art gallery for the night. Everything these women do, they do to the absolute extreme.
The basic formula here is that we spend half the episode with the cameras following the girls in the days before the bout, with the bout itself taking up the second half. This isn’t set in stone, though, as two episodes don’t feature a bout, and one episode spends most of its time at the bout. Along with the personal dramas in their lives, there’s also plenty of drama on the business side of things. This is a true grassroots effort: The skaters aren’t just the stars, they run the league themselves. They handle it all, from establishing rules and guidelines, to promoting the events, to renting out the “Thunderdome,” a former airline hanger that’s now home to their own banked track. If there’s another sport run entirely by women, I’ve never discovered it. When making decisions for the TXRD, the women often have to enforce the rules while also following their hearts. For example, when a technicality in the rules prevents veteran skater Clownsnack (Her name’s Clownsnack?!?) from returning to the game, the league’s leaders must rethink the fairness of their policies. Similarly, we see in other episodes that teams often schedule meetings before a bout to talk about their feelings. I agree with the skater who says the New England Patriots probably don’t have meetings like this.
Naturally, sex appeal is a big draw for this series. These women certainly are sexy, but in an unconventional way. They’re not runway models; they’re the girls the runway models are afraid of. Tattoos, piercings, and hair dye mishaps are the style here. The uniforms don’t always match, and red and black seem to be favorite colors among more than one team. What the fashion choices here really do is show off each girl’s unique sense of self. Catholic schoolgirl outfits gone wrong, torn-up fishnet stockings, and spiked bracelets are the sorts of clothes you’ll see here. None of this is your typical sporting attire, of course, but when it comes to reflecting the skaters’ personalities, the uniforms are more than appropriate.
That brings us to the skating itself, and the fans’ biggest, loudest complaint about Rollergirls: that we don’t see enough of the games. It’s true—the bouts are abbreviated, edited together only to give viewers the highlights. This has understandably been frustrating for viewers hoping for an hour’s worth of skating action, when instead they get an episode full of skater angst with a scaled-down bout at the end. Would I want to see the bouts in their entirety? Hell, yes, I would. But this is not the intention of the show’s creators, so I’m willing to go out on a limb and respect that. The goal is not just to capture a sporting event but to tell a story in each episode, with character development and a beginning, middle, and end. Aren’t there hundreds of sports documentaries out there that re-edit a game or a series of games into a dramatic, Rocky-like spectacle? That’s what Rollergirls attempts in this series.
So even though many viewers felt there wasn’t enough skating, Rollergirls does indeed make with the banked track action, and it is a sight to behold. The skaters play rough out there, often knocking each other for a loop and hitting the floor hard. There are quite a few major crashes, in which one falling skater takes most or all of the other skaters down with her. It’s also a thrill to see the jammers in action. What an adrenaline rush it is to see skilled jammers like Chola or Lux weave their way through the pack, sneaking past the opposing skaters.
Now, there are plenty of other sports in which fights break out (hockey, anyone?) but not like roller derby. At any time during a bout, usually more than once, the rivalries get so heated that the girls can’t help but duke it out. Usually, it’s two skaters punching each other in the face or rolling around on the track pulling each other’s hair. Sometimes, though, it’s huge pile-ups of all the skaters going at it, with everyone whaling on each other at once. You know how in cartoons when characters are fighting they sometimes turn into a big dust cloud with occasional glimpses of fists coming out of the edges? The fights here are probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to that in live action.
Before you conclude that Rollergirls is all tear-jerkiness and violence, know that there are plenty of laughs here as well. As you can see from the above, the ladies adopt some amusing noms de plume for their skating personas. Along with the ones already listed, some of my favorite names are Blanche Dividian, Evelyn Carnit, and Helena Handbasket. Off the track there are even more amusing high jinks. The league’s annual boat cruise descends into chaos after two skaters hold a phony gay wedding. Then, at their end-of-season awards ceremony, the formal party quickly devolves into total anarchy. Hanging out with these girls would be great fun—as long as you don’t get them mad, of course.
In the episode “Undefeated,” which depicts an especially long and brutal bout between the Holy Rollers and the Rhinestone Cowgirls, there’s a moment that, for me, sums up both this series and the sport in general. It’s near the end of the bout, and the girls are all beaten, bruised, and battle-weary. The Holy Rollers regroup, as Sister Mary Jane screams incentives at her teammates to build them up for the final jam of the game. And then it happens: There’s this shot of Miss Conduct skating onto the track to take her place in the jam. It’s in slow motion. She’s moving forward with her long, bright red hair flowing behind her. You can tell she’s exhausted, and she’s breathing heavily, but in her eyes there’s still a fiery determination to win the game, no matter what it takes. The camera is looking up at her in this shot, giving the illusion that she’s about 20 feet tall. She’s like a Greek goddess walking among mortals. This shot only lasts for a few seconds, but in those seconds, we can see a powerful and unique woman ready to face any challenge that comes her way. Rollergirls is about an entire league of these women. There’s heartbreak, laughs, and outrageous action all rolled up into one glorious series.
I’ve disliked most of the “reality TV” programs that have crapped all over the airwaves in recent years, mainly because the ones I’ve seen strike me as a lot less real and a lot more fake. Whenever there’s a surprise twist or a big dramatic outburst, it usually looks to my eyes like it’s staged, despite all the marketing hype that says otherwise. One of the first things I noticed about Rollergirls was just how good-looking a series this is—and no, I’m not just talking about the ladies. Every episode looks polished, as if pre-prepared by a big-budget Hollywood cinematographer. From the many “magic hour” shots here, one gets the idea that it’s sunset 24 hours a day in Texas. Although I’m glad the series doesn’t look cheap and hastily thrown together like so many other reality shows, it has me wondering just how much of what I’m seeing is really the skaters’ lives, and how much was planned out in advance for the sake of the cameras.
The best example of this would be skater Punky Bruiser’s attempt at stand-up comedy. To say that it doesn’t go well would be kind. Her signature joke: “What did one Lou Diamond say to the other Lou Diamond? Lou Diamond!” The perplexed look you got when reading that is the same perplexed look everyone has whenever she tells that joke. And yet, Punky really is the funny one in this series. She constantly makes with the wisecracks and the screwball antics. Describing her performance, she says, “It was worse than the time the babysitter left me alone in the cemetery.” See, now that’s a funny line, and yet neither she nor anyone else in earshot suggests she use it in her act. All this seems real enough to me, but once it’s all over, the episode concludes with a scene in which Punky, at her day job as a waitress, tosses a few one-liners at a customer. He responds by asking if she’s really a comedian, and she gets to walk away feeling better about herself. It appears—to me at least—that this closing scene was staged, to provide a capper to Punky’s story in that episode. Now, maybe I shouldn’t talk. I wasn’t there when they filmed this, after all. Maybe it was just a happy coincidence that the customer said that, and the filmmakers made the most of a small moment. But I don’t know.
There are other examples of scenes or storylines that had me questioning the genuineness of what I saw on screen, such as Lux fretting about the future of her relationship with her boyfriend or the girls zipping through an airport on their skates, all the way onto the plane. The series is still stuffed to the brim with fun, over-the-top entertainment, but I’d prefer to be able to sit back and enjoy it without occasionally stopping to think, “Wait, was this staged?”
Even though the network’s cancellation of Rollergirls was a cold and unfeeling one, A&E has nonetheless put together an excellent four-disc set of the entire first season. With its DVD arrival a mere six months after the series debuted, it’s expected that the picture quality would be excellent, and it is. Colors are bright and vivid, with no flaws evident. Likewise, the stereo sound is impressive, especially when the music kicks in. The “bonus episode” here is a promotional piece that ran on A&E, in which some of the skaters talk about the game and their lives. It’s a nice summary of the season as a whole. The “Anatomy of a Bout” featurette is a tongue-in-cheek look at the derby’s rules, in which some of the girls show off their signature moves. From there, we get eight “player profiles,” which are also tongue-in-cheek featurettes, narrated by an overly serious announcer. The casting tapes, featuring six of the skaters, are long interviews in which they offer more details and anecdotes about the derby and about their lives. These are the best of the extras, covering a lot of ground not seen in the episodes, and a real delight for fans. Rounding out the set are brief featurettes about three of the five teams (no love for the Cherry Bombs or the PDF?), text bios of some of the star skaters, and a text glossary of terms used in the sport. Although commentaries and a more detailed look at the derby’s history would have been great additions, what’s already here is a fine DVD presentation.
One episode here has the girls traveling to San Francisco to meet roller derby legend Ann Calvello. She was the definitive “bad girl” of the sport during the height of its popularity. Not only do the TXRD girls learn a lot from Calvello’s advice, but Calvello sees the reemergence of the sport she devoted her life to. Calvello died on March 14, 2006, not long after her appearance on this series. The last time we see her, she’s surrounded by her admirers in the TXRD.
Love it or hate it, the roller derby is an American tradition. Every time it seems lost to the ages, suddenly someone else brings it back. Calvello is gone, but her memory is alive and well, both in the current grassroots revival of the sport and with Rollergirls: The Complete Season One on DVD.