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Life on the flip side

The premiere of ''Cheerleader Nation," Lifetime's new reality series, is one of the most painful hours of TV to surface in a while. It's pain of the slow-burning, psychological sort: the agony of watching mother-daughter relationships unravel.

Is this cheerleading's fault? Yes and no. Like beauty pageants and debutante balls, cheerleading is one of those obsessions that's hard to comprehend outside certain geographical -- and psychological -- locations. ''Cheerleader Nation" takes us to an affluent section of Lexington, Ky., where cheerleading is a high-stakes competitive sport. It focuses on Dunbar High School, where the varsity squad is going for its third straight national championship, and gives us a sense of the mental and physical power it takes to execute a backflip.

The Katies and Chelseas and Ashleys start to get hard to distinguish, with their nearly identical ponytails and high schoolers' view of the world. (''I want to stay in high school for the rest of my life," says Megan, a popular senior. Please help her!)

The story really belongs to the moms, the Terris and Merri Lynnes who admit, without shame, that they're living vicariously. They meet at a restaurant called Beef 'O' Brady's to commiserate about how hard it is to support their daughters all-out. They linger like shadows in the corner of the gym and cry when their daughters can't execute back handsprings. One mother cannot comprehend why her daughter wouldn't want her to watch tryouts. She fights back with the mother's ultimate weapon, guilt.

To these women, cheerleading represents a lifelong investment; many of their daughters were cheering by the time they were 5, though what there could possibly be to cheer for at that age isn't clear. One mother says, without irony, that her daughter ''chose cheerleading because I chose cheerleading for her."

There is a fine line, obviously, between supporting your kid and pushing her too hard. Because ''Cheerleader Nation" is edited for TV, it unsurprisingly dwells on the parents who trample that line into oblivion. The more complex antihero is Donna, the coach of the varsity squad and mother of Ryan, one of the team's standouts.

Donna is clearly pained that Ryan doesn't want to spend time with her anymore. But she's also relentless: When Ryan announces that she's gotten all A's and B's on a report card, the best Donna can come up with is, ''It's all right."

''It's not all right, it's fantastic," Ryan grumbles. ''You should praise me."

We're in for more of this dynamic, it's clear, as the series probes what teenage girls want and need from their mothers, and vice versa. On some level, these women are a little too easy to judge and mock. Then again, it's hard to look away.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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