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‘Skating’ through part one of a bloated finale

Like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ this finale is all about the unnecessary filler

If you've watched very many reality-show finales recently, you know that the bloating of finales is becoming increasingly unsightly. Monday's first hour of the "Skating With Celebrities" finale (which concludes Thursday on Fox) was no exception.

In the weeks since the teams of Jillian Barberie and John Zimmerman and Kristy Swanson and Lloyd Eisler advanced to the finals, there has been a little skating on television, you may recall, but not the kind that involved actors or news personalities, so it must not have been very important.

Monday's show started with return visits from the eliminated celebrities, from first-out Todd Bridges to last-out Bruce Jenner. The primary effect of this burst of nostalgia was to emphasize that all of them were rightfully bounced, because while neither Barberie nor Swanson is a brilliant skater, they're both a lot better than, say, Dave Coulier.

First to compete once the first blast of filler cleared were Barberie and Zimmerman, who did another of the hotness-emphasizing routines in which they have come to specialize. The performance didn't look particularly sophisticated technically, and the highlight in a rubbernecking sense came when Zimmerman almost dropped Barberie on her head and then flubbed a move that left her sprawled on the ice, looking almost like he was trying to grab her by the hair.

In spite of their significant error and the fact that they did nothing they haven't done almost every week since the beginning of the competition, they scored very well, with judge Mark Lund going so far as to suggest that almost dropping your partner on her head isn't necessarily something that should affect your score. He didn't address actually dropping her on her head.

Next up was another opportunity to watch the eliminated contestants. If you have been kicking yourself for missing your chance to commit to videotape the brilliance of Todd Bridges and Jenni Meno performing to "Wild Wild West," or if you don't want your grandchildren to miss out on Dave Coulier and Nancy Kerrigan's interpretation of "Soul Man," this was your opportunity.

It seemed downright unfair that Bruce Jenner didn't choose to reprise his iconic "Up Where We Belong" performance. Nothing the rest of the season had to offer was any match for his Navy uniform. Instead, he and Tai Babilonia skated their hilariously sappy "Endless Love" number — the one that most emphasized Bruce's total lack of grace.

Real-life soap operaSwanson and Eisler came next to offer their first actual competitive performance, and they, too, stuck to what has worked best for them, another swoony romantic ballad. Of course, for those who have been following the nasty gossip suggesting that they embarked on a real-life romance during or after the show despite the fact that Eisler was married (though separated), their obvious chemistry may have a slightly uncomfortable edge.

Still, their skating together remains graceful and lovely, and they have improved substantially since their early appearances, in which she looked uncomfortable and constantly afraid of falling. Their technical scores were very similar to Barberie and Zimmerman's, but their artistic scores were a solid nudge higher. Apparently, "Unchained Melody" is considered more emotionally affecting than "Toxic."

There will be one more performance on Thursday night (what is being referred to rather loosely as the "free skate"), and that performance will decide the winner. There is no voting by phone or by text — in fact, taping concluded long ago, as you know if you saw Scott Hamilton and judge John Nicks at the Olympics over the last couple of weeks.

So who will win? Well, these shows tend to come down to momentum. If you saw Drew Lachey take "Dancing With The Stars" from Jerry Rice and Stacy Keibler, you know that Stacy was the early preemptive favorite, just as Jillian was. Drew was always good, but he surged at the end, peaking at just the right time. That may or may not translate, of course, in a competition that doesn't involve viewer voting.

If it does, though, it would seem to give Kristy the advantage. She and Lloyd have steadily improved, while the judges have seemed to pick at Jillian and John for not adding more risk to their routines, or for stumbling when they do. (It isn't clear what the impact of the technical flub in their routine was, given that the differences in scoring were mostly on the artistic side. Perhaps the judges don't think dropping your partner is evocative enough.)

Straight skating ability, however, seems to slightly favor Jillian. Kristy and Lloyd have been known to take a tumble or two themselves. While they've made great strides with slow, lyrical performances, they haven't done much uptempo choreography in recent weeks. If they finish up with a fast number, a major mistake isn't outside the realm of possibility.

Kristy and Lloyd take a lead of four-tenths of a point into the final performance on Thursday. With the scores compressed closer and closer to a perfect 10 as the competition progresses (prediction: at least one 10 will show up for someone on Thursday night), that lead isn't as tiny as it appears. If both teams put on good performances, it may eventually turn out that this first set of routines makes the difference, meaning that the moral of pairs skating is just as we've all come to believe it is over many years of watching the Olympics.

"Try not to drop your partner."