NEW YORK (AP) _ Apparently it takes a made-for-TV movie to do justice to a story that was made for TV.

That's why NBC's Saturday night movie, ''Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story'' is such a singular success. It opens with a TV movie screenwriter telling us the story dynamics of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

The scriptwriter (Dennis Boutsikaris), is talking through the fourth wall, in extreme closeup. His face fills the screen while he addresses us.

''Sometimes,'' the writer muses, ''I think that this could be a fairy tale. Not the happily-ever-after type ... but one of those strange, dark tales, where monsters eat little children.''

Boutsikaris' writer is our narrator, when needed, but he's also one of many ''witnesses'' characters, whose testimony into the camera lets us evaluate them, as well as the events in which they participate.

It's a clever device by the actual screenwriter, Phil Penningroth, whose previous efforts include ''Amy Fisher: My Story.'' By rights, ''Tonya and Nancy'' should have been just as dreadful.

The potential was certainly there: A hasty ''ripped from the headlines'' movie-of-the-week, with cartoon characters re-enacting - and overacting - stale emotions and restating the public record. But it didn't happen.

Instead, ''Tonya and Nancy'' is ''interpretive,'' with composite characters, some fictionalized, some names changed. It's a study, not an evidence photo, of two Olympic ice skaters whose names are forever entwined.

As a movie, ''Tonya and Nancy'' is beautifully crafted, well-acted, sometimes touching, occasionally brilliant retelling of the story that made the '94 Winter Olympics the most-watched event in television history.

It was a perfect made-for-TV artifact, a parable born out of human greed and stupidity, acted out inside the genuine ugliness of a media feeding frenzy. It was a perfect story for our media-driven age.

What story? For those of you stranded on polar ice floes for the past six months, there were these two women, world-class figure skaters destined for a showdown at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway.

On Jan. 6, Nancy's leg got bashed by a mysterious attacker, forcing her out of the U.S. championships. Tonya won. Later, it came out that Tonya's ex- husband, Jeff Gillooly, was implicated in the scheme to harm Kerrigan.

Later still, Tonya copped a plea to conspiracy in confecting an alibi for Gillooly and his friend, the portly bodyguard Shawn Eckardt.

Those events - as well as the unraveling of Harding's career and the silver medal for Kerrigan - are the backdrop for ''Tonya and Nancy.'' In the foreground are detailed portraits of the characters who figured in them.

You'll know the media are in for it when one expository device is a perky, teeth-and-hair TV reporter doing retakes of her banal ''standup'' beside the Detroit skating rink where Tonya and Nancy practice for the nationals.

Yes, THAT arena. When Nancy is attacked, we see a meticulous reconstruction of the famous shot of Kerrigan, surrounded by medical technicians, clutching her injured leg and wailing, ''Why me? ... Why now?''

The same scrupulous attention was paid to costumes and scenes that echo TV news footage. All the details are in place.

So is a superb cast. Both Alexandra Powers (the cool, fundamentalist Christian, Jane Halliday, on ''L.A. Law''), who plays Tonya, and Heather Langenkamp, who is Nancy, skated their feet bloody in making the film.

Powers re-creates Harding's feral, gleaming gaze, but the actress also conveys the vulnerability of a woman who lived in abusive relationships and despaired that she was not taller and prettier.

Her ''enabler,'' Gillooly, is played by James Wilder (''Melrose Place''). Susan Clark (''Webster'') is terrific in the minor role of Tonya's driving, much-married mother. Dan Schneider (''Head of the Class'') plays the hapless Eckardt, a kingpin in a conspiracy of fools.

Compliment the director of ''Tonya and Nancy,'' Larry Shaw, and his collaborators for making the movie so watchable. Shaw uses every lens, angle, film and video tool or technique to create a you-are-there texture.

Shaw's editors, Scott Vickrey and Terry Blythe, cut a tremendous amount of character and detail into some of the tightest montages you'll ever see on television.

Alan Caso's photography, even in the rough-cut preview, was superb, stalking a skater's blades at ice-level and covering a pirouette from a spider's eye view overhead.

''Tonya and Nancy'' succeeds because it gives back the humanity to actual, living people who were flattened into television characters for an artificial drama that fed on itself until it devoured them.

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Elsewhere in television ...

TONYA AND NANCY ON COMEDY CENTRAL: Contrary to NBC's belief, ''Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story'' is NOT the first made-for-TV movie of their tale to hit the tube.

Comedy Central, the cable laffs channel, insists that it was first with ''Spunk,'' a five-minute movie starring ''Family Ties'' ' Tina Yothers as Tonya that aired during the height of the Harding-Kerrigan travails.

Comedy Central will air it four times, beginning Saturday at 6:30 p.m.