Gymnasts are an ideal subject for a television show, as anyone currently enamored with Gabby Douglas, et. al., might attest. The sport provides the perfect convergence of teenage angst, body image pressure, and fame. (Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate recently wrote a thought-provoking article about evolving views of and pressures on gymnasts and other young female athletes.)
The creators of Make It or Break It, which has aired for three seasons on ABC Family, saw the opportunity to fill the 3-year-and-50-week gap between Olympics. They imagined a group of aspiring elite gymnasts all training together as teammates and frenemies, with a healthy dose of parental strife for the older audiences.
The show is set at the fictitious Rocky Mountain Gymnastic Training Center, aka “The Rock,” in Colorado. In fact, the gym is the first “character” we meet, its sign in sharp focus against the mountain backdrop. The show’s opening sequence shows us how the families of the trainees here are treated, as they all pull their Range Rovers and Volvos into their reserved parking spaces.
This is a “new kid in town” pilot; the creators chose as their starting point a time where things were going great for all of the main characters, but just as a new player arrives to challenge the status quo. As one particularly glory-hungry parent, Steve Tanner, sums up, “The Rock is rolling in dough, we’ve got the strongest club possible heading to nationals, and Sports Illustrated is talking a cover.”
Just as the three star girls, Steve’s daughter Lauren (Cassie Scerbo), Kaylie (Josie Loren), and Payson (Ayla Kell) are gearing up for a big national trial the next day, Emily (Chelsea Hobbs) arrives in their midst. Emily’s mother doesn’t have an assigned parking spot, and she doesn’t even hang around to watch practice, like the rest of the parents. Emily, we learn, was discovered on a playground (by whom?) and is here on scholarship. Neither her hair nor her leotard shines with the glam of the other girls’.
Also, weird detail: Emily is the only one whose breathe we can see outside the gym; as if she’s the only one who can feel the cold in this strange, new place. (She moved from Arizona.)
We come to understand the hierarchy of bitchiness among the original three girls by their reactions to Emily. Lauren hates her on sight; Kaylie is skeptical but not unreasonable; Payson keeps an open mind. It’s no surprise that Payson also has the most down-to-earth parents — and the mom played by the most recognizable actress, Peri Gilpin, Frasier‘s Roz. Her character, Kim, is instantly likable. Together with her husband and younger daughter, she seems like a lone voice of reason, even when Payson is too preoccupied to speak to her.
Emily is, ostensibly, the protagonist. She’s the only character we see at home… in a stereotype-laden rented apartment where her hairdresser mother and handicapped brother rely on her to bring home the bacon. But Emily herself is pretty boring. She feels like a pale imitation of a John Hughes heroine. Kaylie is slightly interesting with her forbidden relationship with a male gymnast. Lauren’s just another bitchy rich girl. For my money, Payson seems the most interesting, an expectation that is borne out as the season unfolds and she sustains a serious injury.
We’re hammered over the head with a couple of themes; one, that gymnastics at this level is much more than a hobby. As Steve puts it, “They’re not little girls, they’re big business.” The other, slightly more subtle, is the delicate balance between team sport and individual sport.
Even if you don’t care for the drama, you get to see a lot of gymnastics, in contrast to Bunheads, where we are lucky to get a minute or two of dancing per episode. Like Bunheads, the show does a fairly convincing job of making it look like it’s the actual actresses giving the performances. They all have at least enough training for some good close-ups. Each show is a teen soap opera, no doubt about it, but if you’re into the thing the characters do — either gymnastics or ballet — it can be quite entertaining. So, when the Olympics are over, if you still need a gymnastics fix, all three season of Make It or Break It are on Hulu.