Two years ago, when I started writing for this website, I was assigned to watch and recap Season 3 of Battle of the Blades, the CBC reality show that takes retired hockey players and pairs them with figure skaters. I hadn't watched the first two seasons, and not long into Season 3, I knew this was nothing to regret. It was not a good show.
Tasked with the same assignment for Season 4, which premiered Sunday, the only thing I regret is asking, "Hey, am I going to have to do Battle of the Blades reviews again this year?" Damn.
The premiere was especially difficult because I watched it immediately after the finale of Breaking Bad. Going from that this to is like following up a gourmet meal with a hammer to the mouth.
That said, Season 4 of BotB looks to be a much different viewing experience than Season 3, and not just because we have a whole new cast of ex-hockey players -- Jason Strudwick, Anson Carter, and Scott Thornton, to name a few. Rather, it's because we also have a whole new cast of judges. Gone from the panel is Sandra Bezic, BotB's fount of vague, nonsensical praise, and Jeremy Roenick, the show's source of under-buttoned shirts and creepy leering.
In their place: figure skating legends Jamie Sale and Kurt Browning (who asked to be transitioned from co-host to judge, perhaps because he realized, in Canada, standing next to Ron MacLean usually means you're a buffoon), and Season 2 contestant slash adult diaper spokesperson P.J. Stock.
Amazingly, this panel does not appear to be an improvement on last year's. While I initially wasn't all that sad to see Roenick and Bezic go, having routinely pointed out they did very little judging and said next to nothing of relevance, I soon found myself missing their personality. Faced with the choice between watching a normal person do normal person things and watching a crazy person bite the head off a pigeon, I think we'd all tune in to the pigeon-eater. This panel needs more crazy.
I guess you could argue that it doesn't matter too much, since the heart of Battle of the Blades is the skating or the dynamic between the hockey player and his figure skating partner, but that's a stupid argument. Reality shows call for a consistent, dynamic presence, and that presence can't come from someone that's a threat to be cut from the show at any given moment.
(This show has always seemed to lack an awareness of what makes for good television. As an example, every now and then they'll say something to the effect of, "Nobody thought this was a good idea for a show, but now this smash hit is in its fourth season!" Really? Nobody thought a CBC program that combines figure skating and hockey was a good idea? Have you met Canada?)
Anyway. Let's get to the skaters.
The first pairing was Grant Marshall, who won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003, and Sinead Kerr. They were an utter disappointment -- not because they were bad, but because they weren't. It was an innocuous skate with some unexpectedly decent footwork from Marshall, drawing high praise and the top score of the night from the judges. (High praise, in this instance, is Stock saying "you guys rocked it". He will be a gold mine of insight on this show, no doubt.)
My issue with this is simple: this is allegedly a show in which hockey players struggle to adjust to a new thing. But if we're dropped in when they've already adjusted in some sense -- if there's no schadenfreude to be had -- then what are we watching, exactly? Mediocre figure skating. There wasn't a single fall on Sunday night, and MacLean told us they'd been working on these routines for four weeks. Stop setting these people up to succeed, CBC!
Again, this show has no idea how to be good television.
Another example: I don't mean to mock the more emotional moments, but the show spent a lot of time during the introductory mini-docs letting players cry. Crying is all well and good, but the judges kept alluding to watching the skaters struggle and fall in practice. Show me that. Seriously, I'm no TV executive, but even I know falling down = good television. Pardon my insensitivity, but: more falling, less bawling.
Longtime Detroit Red Wing Mathieu Dandenault and his partner, Marie France Dubreuil, were up next.
I don't remember much of it, save Dubreuil's bright yellow outfit, which made the performance look like Kill Bill on ice. I braced myself for cartoonish blood-spurting, but no. What we got instead was a bland skate, followed by several observations that Dandenault has big feet. Television!
53-year-old Mike Krushelnyski, who played with the Oilers team of the 1980s, skated next with his partner Marcy Hinzmann. Again, we had a performance free of anything to talk about, although I did appreciate the judging panel this time around.
"Your hands slipped on her dress. I saw it," Kurt Browning said in describing a lift. "But you focused and re-gripped." It's not much, but it's something. I want the judges, especially the two that are figure skating champions, to say things about figure skating that I wouldn't see or know. Is that too much to ask?
But then we were met with yet another issue with this panel: the occasional disconnect between the praise-heavy comments and the scores. When Kurt Browning came in with a 5.3 and the Krushelnyski and Hinzmann wound up with the worst total score of the night at 16.1, even Ron MacLean expressed a quiet note of surprise, because it didn't mesh with the glowing report.
Listen. Let the applause-happy audience be the ones that do the disingenuous encouraging. And let the judges should judge. The closet we came to real criticism tonight was this, from Browning: "A little more skating skills, okay?" Yeah, you think?
Next up: the Russian team! Vladimir Malakhov and Oksana Kazakova, who should really have been cast as villains. They needed more sinister music.
"Just a couple mistakes," said Kurt Browning, "but you're a very interesting couple. I look forward to more." Dynamic! In his defence, he has a cold and you could tell, but come on -- the guy asked to be on the panel. When you ask the coach to put you in, you'd better take over the game.
I worry about Jason Strudwick and Violetta Afanasieva, and not because I don't think they'll do well, but because I've done radio segments with Strudwick before and will again, so I hesitate to be too nasty about him. I'll merely let this screenshot speak for itself:
Fact: Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" is not about Jason Strudwick.
"Jason, I didn't know you had those dance moves in you," said P.J. Stock.
I don't have much to say about the final two couples, Brian Savage with Jessica Dube and Anson Carter with Shae Lynn Bourne, save for this: having watched Carter when he played in Vancouver, I'm sure he'll do quite well, provided Bourne is setting him up all night.
Finally, my biggest issue with reality shows, and Battle of the Blades is as guilty of this as most, is that the show is full of padding. Maybe the premiere will be a longer episode than the rest, but this was a two-hour ordeal. We didn't get our first skating performance until 20 minutes in. Tighten it up. If all the episodes are two hours, I will die.
If not, I'll be back here writing this every single week, a chilling thought that sort of makes me hope all the episodes are two hours after all.