Make It or Break It: the Friday Night Lights of women's gymnastics.

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June 19 2009 3:12 PM

Make It or Break It

The Friday Night Lights of women's gymnastics.

The Secret Life of the American Teenager comes back Monday night for a second season on ABC Family, and if you're like me, then you hadn't noticed it was away in the first place. But while we weren't paying attention, 4.5 million people watched last March's season finale, where the young, unwed protagonist managed to deliver a baby without the show delivering a bludgeoning message. An audience of 4.5 million is sufficient to make the ladies of Gossip Girl (which drew only half as many viewers that night) curl their well-glossed lips with jealousy: "ABC Family? Ew."

But the joke is on Blair and Serena. Founded in 1977 by the televangelist Pat Robertson—whose holy-rolling 700 Club it is still contractually obligated to air—ABC Family now thrums along as a property of the Walt Disney Co. Under these mouse-eared auspices, the channel now airs teen shows that teens actually watch. Forgoing the salacious camp and meaningless fluff of shows on the CW—which attract hype the way hard candy attracts houseflies—ABC Family turns out some of the most grown-up soaps on air. Its fluff has meaning.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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For a sudsy comic study of undergraduate life, you can do much worse than Greek, which just finished its second season of frolicking and sulking around frat row at a fictional college. This week's finale was a tale of Hieronymous Bosch and Anheuser Busch. The Bosch was just a matter of tone. Early on, an art-history professor, sounding like a good warlock, set the stakes for the episode by flashing a slide of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights and drawing attention to the panel at the right, with its all-too-convincing depiction of the freakiest tortures of hell. The plot itself gave good sin, with envy motivating an inter-sorority catfight, lust doing its thing, and gluttony inspiring the party scenes.

Which brings us to the Busch: It seems to be the case that college kids drink, especially the underage ones, occasionally at noon. It's a measure of Greek's sophistication that it is able to casually acknowledge this as a law of the universe in the context of family television. Though Greek naturally uses beer to lubricate the mechanisms of its plot, it does not sensationalize intoxication in the manner of Gossip Girl or romanticize as happens with the operatic benders of The Real World. Nor does Greek waste its breath trying to impart a very special lesson. Though engaged with young-adult questions about morality from a pragmatic perspective, it refuses to moralize.

Whether or not there's any justice in the world, the channel's newest show will be its next smash. It's a stretch to say that Make It or Break It (debuts Monday at 9 p.m. ET) is the Friday Night Lights of women's gymnastics, but we can do it without pulling a hamstring. It helps that actor Peri Gilpin, who plays the mother of one Olympic hopeful, resembles Connie Britton, who plays Tami Taylor on FNL. Both actors have appealing lines around their shrewd eyes; both characters have clever ones winding out of their sharp mouths.

In the pilot of Make It or Break It, the anxious cameras introduce us to a training center in Boulder, Colo., where the air is thin and the tension is not. Emily Kmetko is the new kid in town, the Cinderella awaiting her glass beam shoe, the poor girl vaulting a class barrier. We see a younger brother reading Stranger in a Strange Land in his wheelchair, her mother (Susan Ward) exhibiting the lively tackiness of a sassy diner waitress, her father not in the picture. The lugubrious maroon of Emily's off-brand leotard sums up her underdog status.

"They sell leos off the rack now?" antagonizes Lauren Tanner, the queen mean girl here.

But this is an antagonist drawn roundly enough to deserve some compassion. Given the pressures she confronts a daily basis—overbearing father, domineering eyeliner—Lauren looks like a full-body stress fracture waiting to happen, and we owe her a measure of sympathy simply on account of her ambition. The show reserves its real scorn for sloths and burn-outs.

Working her part-time fast-food job, Emily casts a pitying glare at the stoners who, inventing the wheel as stoners will, order a pizza by asking for "an open-faced calzone." She's just finished rolling her eyes when a male co-worker—all emo eyes and James Dean chin—takes her through the pros and cons of working under a meth-head supervisor. "On the plus side, tons of freedom. Downside? Chaos. It's kinda the same thing, though, if you think about it." The characters do indeed think about the ironies and ambiguities of growing up. That is half of the charm of Make It or Break It, the other half being dizzying shots of suspenseful dismounts. Nice title, by the way: The imperative, almost sinister, telegraphs mixed feeling about competition to a TV audience that can't get enough of it.