TNN revives the ersatz sport of roller derby, complete with disco lighting, flames, smoke bombs and a heavy-metal soundtrack. 

Smash and Crash

Airs Mondays at 10 p.m., Fridays at 8 and 9 p.m., and Saturdays at 5 and 6 p.m.

Bread and circuses keep the Roman citizenry pacified.

So wrote the Roman lawyer and satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis in his "Satires" back in the year 125. Actually, he wrote "panem et circensis," because Latin was his native tongue, but no matter. The real point is that roller derby — or something very much like it, anyway — is back on TV, and it kinda makes one wonder what old Decimus Junius Juvenalis would have to say about that — in Latin or English.

Those of you who think professional wrestling on TV is reality-based programming probably should stop reading right now. But the rest of you might be interested to know that, although it's now one of the most sordid pseudo-sports on TV, the roller derby didn't start off that way. The concept began very differently in 1935, during the depths of the Depression, at a time when marathons were all the rage.

That's what the roller derby once was — a skating marathon. Leo Seltzer drew the first plans for a track and dreamed that his creation would one day become an Olympic sport. The original track was flat, not banked like today's, and teams competed in "pretend" races from one city to another. A total of 57,000 laps, for example, would get you from one coast to the other. Physical contact was not allowed.

Seltzer's dreams of a new Olympic sport came crashing down when roller derby went sordid in 1937. Skaters began the "smash and crash" tactics that so please the derby's fans today. The crowds went wild, and — get this — Damon Runyon, no less, helped Seltzer draft all-new rules that are still used in 1999.

Then along came TV, and on March 24, 1949, the roller derby came to ABC, originating from such enchanting locations as the 14th Regiment Armory in Brooklyn. Originally, the roller derby was on from 10 to 11:15 on Thursday nights, but soon the show got longer and aired as often as three nights a week.

Popular though it may have been with the bubba audience — more on that in a moment —the show's last prime-time airing was in August, 1951. Roller derby enjoyed a brief resurgence during the '70s: some of that decade's greatest roller derby moments can be seen on ESPN Classic: The Classic Sports Network Sundays at 8 a.m.

And now roller derby is back again, only this time it's called WSL (for World Skating League) RollerJam, and it's on the TNN cable network. But other than the year and the network, nothing basic seems to have changed. It's still an ersatz sport full of faux violence and mock machismo, only this time around there's disco lighting, flames, smoke bombs and a heavy-metal soundtrack. The rules, as they've always seemed, are nearly incomprehensible, but one suspects the "RollerJam" audience isn't actually keeping score.

Is "RollerJam" for you? Well, you can tell a lot about who's expected to watch a program by seeing who advertises on it. "RollerJam" features commercials for Rain-X, the Garden Claw, Slick 50, Pep Boys, Tinactin and NuVinyl, among others. If those are your products, then "RollerJam" might be the circus you've been looking

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