I know a new family-friendly show is doing its job if my kids beg me to play the pilot when their friends are over. So ABC Family, if the numbers for tonight’s premiere of “Make It or Break It” are not sky high, well, half the kids in my neighborhood have seen it already. Sorry.
The good news is, they really liked it, and so did I.
“Make It or Break It” is a series about gymnasts, and what a relief that is. A combination of beauty and strength, gymnastics is one of the few sports that requires its athletes to compete as a team but also against one another, which makes it a perfect venue for all that teen angst.
More important, it is a blessedly silent break from all that singing -- Fox’s satirical “Glee” had better end the run of music-based kids shows or I will go smack out of my mind.
Beyond that, “Make It or Break It” is, in some ways, maddeningly familiar: scruffy but cool new kid disrupts streamlined cliquish girl world. In this case, that world revolves around the Rock, where a trio of stars is about to be ranked for state finals. There’s top-ranked Payson (Ayla Kell), who’s driven but still nice; pretty and romantically distracted Kaylee (Josie Loren) and spoiled rich girl Lauren (Cassie Scerbo), whose father just happens to be the primary financial support of the Rock.
Enter Emily (Chelsea Hobbs), a gangly talent discovered, Lauren notes snootily, on “a playground.” She’s here on scholarship because, as her clothing makes instantly clear, she’s, well, poor. At least in comparison to her McMansioned peers. Emily has a single mother who’s a bit of a hottie, can’t keep her calendar straight and serves dinner out of cans. There’s also a brother in a wheelchair. So, clearly, Emily has been forced to Grow Up Too Soon. As Lauren realizes that Emily could easily take her place in the team’s top three, betrayal of an alarmingly intense nature ensues (one wonders if Tonya Harding were a script consultant), setting up a newly beleaguered but still determined team in a fight against the corrupt forces of the moneyed establishment.
Though not known for his enjoyment of girl’s gymnastics, Karl Marx would be very proud.
There are many familiar tropes in “Make It or Break It,” the most obvious being Lauren, who is not only rich but also blond. (When, Lord, when will this stereotype die?) Scerbo dutifully flounces, spits out sarcastic comments and appeals to Daddy, but to her credit, also projects an insecurity and occasional naked fear that allows Lauren to be a real girl.
And that, along with the great shots of gymnastics, is what lifts “Make It or Break It,” written by Holly Sorenson, from the many girl-power, collective-touting message shows that fill the various kid-friendly venues. Even within the confines of their assigned stereotypes, each of the girls seems naturally complicated. Hobbs’ Emily is all angles and bangs and nail-bitten determination -- she wouldn’t know TV sass if it tripped her in the middle of her floor exercise. But watching her hang on to one slim possibility -- that she could be a gymnast -- is to see that moment in every adolescent when the hope of an identity dawns.
Kell’s Payson, meanwhile, still hangs her hope on an orderly universe. When, realizing that things are not going to work out as planned, she says in despair, “But I did everything right,” her anguish will resonate with anyone who has thought that life’s vagaries could be controlled through planning and preparation. (Peri Gilpin plays her mother, which also promises great things.)
No doubt there will be many lessons about the importance of pulling together and being true to oneself, etc., but “Make It or Break It” seems prepared to take on not only the obvious Life Lessons but also the crucial undercurrents that move so many lives well into adulthood. And that, as much as the graceful wonder of gymnastics, will make it worth watching.
‘Make It or Break It’
Where: ABC Family
When: 9 tonight
Rating: Not rated