Back in 2006 I was addicted to Cheerleader Nation, a reality show on Lifetime that followed an elite high school cheer squad working toward a national championship.  Just as interesting as the injuries, rivalries, and routines were the relationships between the cheerleaders and their parents, some of whom followed the team everywhere and had decided opinions on how best their daughters should be used on the squad, others of whom didn't understand why anybody would want to go through the hassle.

ABC Family is trying to capture that vibe with their new elite gymnastics drama Make It Or Break It.  And while it's frequently formulaic, there are flashes of life in the writing and in the milieu the show creates.  The show takes place at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Center, a training facility with a national reputation.  It's time to compete for the chance to go to nationals, with the top three women forming the top flight of the squad.  Payson (the laser-focused elder statewoman), Lauren (the spoiled blond balance beam specialized), and Kaylie (the brunette who wins floor exercises by "flipping your hair and pulling it out of your ass," according to a teammate) have been the top three for years.

But a new wrinkle has just appeared at the Rock: Emily, a gangly gymnast with no pedigree, a charity case discovered on a playground and given a scholarship.  She has a mother who does nails for a living, a Heinlein-reading brother in a wheelchair, and one shot at the big time.  That doesn't make conniving Lauren very happy, especially after her uncharacteristic fall on the beam puts Emily in contention for the top three.

There's some juicy behind-the-scenes stuff — a taboo relationship between Kaylie and a male gymnast, a Hummer-driving dad who expects special treatment for his daughter, Peri Gilpin as a mom trying to deal with Olympic hype, and special guest star Erik Palladino as a coach with a sense of fairness but no real power.  And there's a wicked sense of humor at work in the scene of Emily working her first shift at a pizza joint, serving stoner girls who stare slackjawed at the menu and bonding with a co-worker who sees an glimmer of opportunity in the meth addiction of their boss: "Upside — tons of freedom.  Downside: chaos."


The show is going to rise or fall, however, on its gymnastics scenes.  And so far, the producers are willing to spend the money and take the time necessary to make them thrilling and pleasurable to watch.  I'm sure that the actresses were doubled for the impressive routines, but the editing was so seamless that I sometimes wondered.  We got angles and pacing that would have been impossible in a real competition.

However, the show's Achilles heel might be its two-dimensional sense of villainy.  Lauren turns out to be pure evil, willing to sabotage her competitors, rat out her friends, and laugh as they get left behind.  One could hope for a little more nuance.  And one could wonder whether this black-hats, white-hats dynamic is enough to sustain Make It Or Break It over the long haul.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

- I liked the up-to-the-minute visual signifiers of the girls: the well-heeled veterans in their smooth spandex (light on the sparkles), and the underprivileged newbie in a plain leotard that appears to predate artificial fibers altogether.


- Super diss, Rock style: "I see you don't have any endorsements yet for clothes … or anything."

- At least the obligatory bulimia scene is punctuated by dialogue like "I look like a butterball … I am turning into Mary frickin' Lou!"

- Does this new girl from the wrong side of the tracks (the Fresno side) have what it takes to compete on the national level?  Will that nasty Lauren get her comeuppance?  How will the gymnasts of the Rock survive without their stars or their coach?  Might they Make It … or possibly Break It?  Tune in next week!  (Not to this blog, but to the show.  I'll be watching, at least until the show gets even more predictable, but this post is just a one-time thing.)