It’s fair to say that Tessa Virtue is an admired and beloved national icon in Canada. The now retired ice dancer hauled in medals and championship wins with Scott Moir. As we all know, they had this aura, this magnetism, as performers and athletes, and we were enchanted.
Thus, it’s rather odd to see Virtue’s personal and professional style, from her hair, costumes and the gaze on her face – you know that gaze – mimicked, adapted and embraced, without acknowledgment, in a new figure skating-drama series on Netflix. It’s a bit outrageous, actually. The matter raises two issues. First, what the heck is going on with this blatant mimicry, and second, why can’t we have a figure-skating drama that’s actually captivating and good?
Spinning Out, which arrived on Netflix last week without much fanfare, is beyond bizarre, and not in a good way. Big-budget and lavishly made (partly in Toronto), it is essentially about promising-but-damaged figure skater Kat (Kaya Scodelario, an English actor best known for the series Skins), who seemed on her way to Olympic glory but took a terrible fall on the ice in a crucial competition. Now, when the series opens, she’s offered a way back, a route to glory and excellence. She’s on her way if she agrees to pair with a hot, rich bad boy.
Thing is, Kat is bipolar, something she inherited from her mother, Carol (January Jones from Mad Men). Carol spends most of her time off her meds and angry at Kat. There is also the added tension that comes with the existence of Carol’s younger daughter, Serena (Willow Shields), who is not bipolar but a much less artistic and graceful skater than Kat. To exacerbate the mess of tensions, the family is dirt poor. In the Idaho town in which they live – basically a fancy ski resort – they’re the service workers while the rich nobs can buy the best coaches and hog the ice time.
Everything is thrown into the story: sex, drugs, mental illness, lies, fights, deceptions and shocking revelations you can see coming a mile away. It’s an awful drama; a pile of clichés tossed onto a promising storyline and set alight. It’s an adult drama delivered as teen soap opera. All that money, talent and effort amounts to a banal, saccharine exercise in fake gravitas.
What’s truly peculiar is the number of moments where, as a Canadian, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, that looks like Tessa!” There are key scenes in which the Kat figure performs in what is a distinct copy of the costume Virtue wore at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and her hairstyle in those performances is also copied. In fact, there are several times when you conclude that Scodelario – hired after Emma Roberts couldn’t do the role – was cast for her uncanny resemblance to Virtue.
Virtue has not stayed silent on this matter, but she hasn’t said a lot, either.
January 3, 2020
Meanwhile, a number of her fans have gleefully posted photos from her past performances alongside stills from Spinning Out, for their own amusement.
This saga of flattering imitation and a failed series (created by Samantha Stratton, a former figure skater and, more recently, a writer on the series Mr. Mercedes) can be framed as amusing. But we must wonder why there hasn’t been a Canadian-made series anchored in figure skating.
Far be it from this column to suggest anything to Canadian TV executives, of course. It’s outrageous to suggest the creation of anything that might actually reflect the passions and interests of Joe and Jane Canadian at home on the couch. It would be utter madness to even note that we watch figure skating in vast numbers and there might be in a drama to be mined from that. Leaving sarcasm aside, however, if the CBC can spend a fortune in making the reality series Battle of the Blades, why can’t it develop and deliver a drama series rooted in the same type of material?
There’s something about the figure skating world, that arena of elegance, pretense, toxicity and strength, that distills key elements of the Canadian culture. It encapsulates something in us and that makes it compulsively engaging.
Meanwhile, Virtue is now doing charitable works, while promoting businesses including a furniture store and a bank, and planning to do an MBA degree. Probably, she has time to consult on a series about figure skating that could be much more authentic and compelling than the silly series Spinning Out, which amounts to a strange and dubious act of imitation.
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