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Television Review

Teen gymnast series off to uneven start

Cassie Scerbo is Lauren on ABC Family’s “Make It or Break It.’’ Cassie Scerbo is Lauren on ABC Family’s “Make It or Break It.’’ (Isabella Vosmikova/Abc Family)
By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2009
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For a TV show directed at teens, there is much potential in the taut world of competitive gymnastics. It’s like high school on steroids: scantily clad girls backstabbing each other at every turn, boys in spandex lusting after them, dictatorial parents and coaches barking on the sidelines. And after the impish Shawn Johnson and leggy Nastia Liukin vaulted themselves into the collective heart of America’s youth, competitive gymnastics became an inevitable target for teen TV. But ABC Family’s new series “Make It or Break It,’’ which premieres tonight at 9, misses the mark. Despite its fancy flips and dizzy floor routines, “Make It’’ is unconvincing as a portal into this subculture and numbingly hollow as a commentary on teenage life.

The premiere begins when neophyte Emily Kmetko (Chelsea Hobbs) arrives at The Rock, a top-tier gymnastics training center in Colorado, and rattles the established lineup. “We always go 1-2-3,’’ Lauren Tanner (Cassie Scerbo) says tartly to Payson Keeler (Ayla Kell) and Kaylie Cruz (Josie Loren), fellow golden girls of the gym, just before Emily tumbles by and the girls look on in horror.

Emily, we learn, is a scholarship kid straight from the YMCA, which is why her mother (Susan Ward) drives a rickety station wagon and sports caked-on eye shadow and acrylic nails. (“Is that hooker her mother?’’ Lauren says at one point.) But all the girls, of course, have their own shtick. Fiendishly competitive Lauren is the token mean girl. Sweet, chirpy Kaylie is trysting with sinewy heartthrob Carter Anderson (Zachary Burr Abel) despite the coach’s staunch “no boys allowed’’ policy. And top gymnast Payson, generally a sturdy, sane presence, is so focused on the sport that her mother worries that she’s not having any fun.

Meanwhile, the parents, most notably Kim Keeler (Peri Gilpin), Payson’s refreshingly grounded mom, and Steve Tanner (Anthony Starke), Lauren’s scheming father, rally around them. Candace Cameron Bure, D.J. Tanner from “Full House,’’ makes an appearance as Steve’s secretary and girlfriend. Hobbs is likable as Emily, if improbably tall and gangly for an aspiring Olympic gymnast. And it is impressive that these cute young actresses also manage to bend their feet backward to touch their heads and laze around with their legs in 180-degree splits.

Although ABC Family doesn’t claim to be a stickler for accuracy, it’s worth mentioning that all the impeccably stuck landings and musings about Olympic glory feel laughably farfetched. And the script is so peppered with clunky “teen’’ lingo that it sounds like it was written by some fusty dad trying to be cool. “I don’t mean to get up in your Kool-Aid, but watch your butt. Marty will wig if he catches you two,’’ Lauren tells Kaylie.

At its best, ABC Family produces shows with an undercurrent of something deeper: perhaps brooding teen insecurities, or at least observational wit. But “Make It or Break It’’ is pure performance - all spectacle and no subtext. Lauren is such an inconceivable monster to Emily that one almost wants to keep watching the show just to see how it will humanize her. When the music swells and the slow motion begins, we always know what to expect, whether it’s a perfect dismount or a tragic gaffe.

The somersaults and airy leaps are mesmerizing at first. But in the end, “Make It or Break It’’ falls flat.

Laura Bennett can be reached at lbennett@globe.com.

TELEVISION REVIEW
MAKE IT OR BREAK IT Starring: Chelsea Hobbs, Ayla Kell, Josie Loren, Cassie Scerbo, Peri Gilpin, Susan Ward

On: ABC Family

Time: Tonight at 9

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