The narrative arc of Make It or Break It, the ABC Family series about a group of elite gymnasts and their Olympic dreams, is not unlike the career trajectory of real Olympic athletes: Just as a growth spurt can derail a gymnast’s years of training and sacrifice, unexpected off-screen developments occasionally bring years of careful plotting to an abrupt end. In Season 2, Make It or Break It lost the central character of Emily Kmetko when actress Chelsea Hobbs became pregnant (there’s no way to hide a baby bump when the actresses are in leotards); in the most recent off-season, actor Joshua Bowman left to play Daniel on ABC’s Revenge.
Make It or Break It, which airs on Mondays at 9 p.m., premiered in 2009; Season 3 began last month. Slate spoke with Holly Sorensen, the creator and showrunner behind the series, about the challenges of real-time storytelling and her desire to tell a realistic teen pregnancy story.
Slate: Your main characters were 16 when the show started. As they’ve grown up, their problems—and the ways they deal with them—have changed. They rely on their parents much less these days, for instance. That’s realistic, but I also miss the moms and dads.
Holly Sorensen: Of course. The writers miss them, too. One of the things we’re particularly proud of in this series is a slow evolution of storytelling. So if someone gets anorexia on Make It or Break It, it’s a 40-episode arc; it’s not a three-episode arc. If someone breaks their back, they’re not back on top at the end of the season or even the next season; they’re dealing with it for the remainder of the show.
Slate: There’s a downside to that, though, which must be very frustrating for you. Last year you spent a lot of time introducing Max, slowly establishing his relationships with the other characters. But then the actor who played Max, Joshua Bowman, got a great part in Revenge, and now he’s gone. That’s got to be a killer, right?
Sorensen: Yeah, Max is a heartbreaker, and that’s just one of those realities of TV when you’re off the air for a year. The way cable TV works is that people can’t be tied to you unless you pay them a small fortune. That was sad, because we were really excited to do a bisexual male character. Being bisexual is seemingly so painful because gay people don’t believe you, and straight people are freaked out by you. So we were so psyched for that story. But we also were proud that on Make It or Break It, we pick really cute boys who go on to have great careers.
Slate: Chelsea Hobbs, who played Emily Kmetko, left to have her second child in the middle of Season 2. It must have been tough to lose your hero.
Sorensen: Omigosh, yeah. Obviously it was hard for everyone. I can’t really think of anyone that it was harder for than me. I created the character, there was a lot of me in her. It was difficult, and there was a tremendous opportunity in it also.
Slate: In what way?
Sorensen: Long before Chelsea’s pregnancy, after the first year of the show, I read an article in the New York Times about how a character was going to have an abortion on Friday Night Lights. So I thought, “Why is that a story?” And the answer was because no primetime TV character has ever had an abortion in the 20 years since Maude. That’s simply not an option, because even though the majority of Americans think that you should have access to abortion, the 20 percent that don’t believe that will boycott you, and they are a really well-organized group.
It occurred to me that there is no show that could do an abortion story in the same way that we could, because in virtually any other show, you can have the baby and then go back to college. You can have the baby and accept the scholarship. But you can’t have the baby and then go to the Olympics. It’s simply not possible. So, in a universe where pregnant teens are stars and are on television—even those shows that portray the strong downside of it, shows that I respect, those girls are still showing up on magazine covers, and their lives are better than they were before the camera was on them.
When Chelsea wanted to play the pregnancy, that story was in my mind, though I was going to try to do it closer to the Olympics … I went to ABC Family before, right after I read that article, and I said, “I know this is against everything that ABC Family can do”—because the politics of that network are pretty specific—“but I’m going to come to you in two years, because I really want to do this story.” We had the opportunity to do it before I planned, in a way I never thought possible, with a character I never intended to do it with. And the pain of the story—which is that having the baby means you can’t compete—was a painful thing for our fans and a painful thing for me. But frankly it’s the only real teen pregnancy story I’ve seen on TV. The truth is one costs the other. If the goal of the show is to make the Olympics, that dream is over.
Slate: Of course, when Emily left, you also lost the characters of her mom, Chloe, and her boyfriend, Damon.
Sorensen: Yeah, we lost Chloe. We lost Damon. We tried to bring them back, and we wanted Chelsea back this year, but she has two children, one of them a small baby. She needs to do what’s best for her family, and we completely respect that. We planned to have her back. We planned to have all of them back, but that’s not going to happen.
Slate: I’ve always loved that Make It or Break It deals with elite athletes. Most TV shows, especially ones about teens, deal with supposedly ordinary people whom the audience can relate to. Did you ever get any pushback about focusing on this very special group of people?
Sorensen: No, never. What’s interesting for me as a writer is when you can create a world that’s unique—and maybe rarified—but that has themes that play into what your audience is going through. Our two big themes are first, having to be incredibly disciplined at the exact time in your life when you want the most freedom, which is a perfect teenage question. The other perfect teenage question, especially for girls, is present in the very specific nature of gymnastics, which unlike any other sport is both 100 percent team sport and 100 percent individual. So, where does the individual fit in within the group, how important is the group, how important is your place in the group? There’s also the perfectionism applied to teenage bodies, especially teenage girls’ bodies.
I run into Brentwood moms whose daughters are having nervous breakdowns over the ACT test and charity work. What the average teenager has to go through in many ways feels like an elite sport to me, compared to the way I was raised.
Slate: It’s interesting that you bring up the question of individual and team. I’ve heard more discussion of Make It or Break It in the workplace than of any other teen show. Work is also a place where you’re trying to succeed individually but also as a team.
Sorensen: I hadn’t thought about that before, but in some ways the show is more analogous to the workplace than it is to the high-school world. We don’t deal with clothes—although we do deal with boys. But it’s not really about popularity. It’s more like a workplace, where there’s a singular focus on excellence pointed toward one goal.
Slate: On any show that’s about teens, there’s always a potential “realness” problem—i.e., do these actors really look like 16 or 17 year olds. On Make It or Break It, there’s an added issue of whether they look like gymnasts, who, at least in the popular imagination, are small, skinny, almost-pre-pubescent girls.
Sorensen: I was slightly frustrated with a review at the beginning of this season that said the actresses have aged out of the roles. Almost all of our girls are the exact same age as the girls who are going to be selected, and younger than some medal winners were when they won.
And then the other part about the body: If you look at real gymnasts, they’re a whole range of body types. They’re sparkplugs like Mary Lou Retton; they’re lithe like Nastia Liukin; they’re muscular like Shawn Johnson; they’re everything in between. The fact that we find real gymnasts who are perfect body doubles for our girls shows that their bodies are the right shapes.
Slate: What’s your favorite sports movie?
Sorensen: I’m a super sucker for Brian’s Song, the classic football TV movie. Super sucker for Tin Cup. Obviously Friday Night Lights is beyond brilliant and utterly spectacular. I also loved The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg’s boxing movie.
This interview has been condensed and edited.