I’m something of a closet junkie for ABC Family Channel shows and Make It or Break It: Volume One (Disney), a series focused on four female teenage gymnasts competing to land a spot on the American Olympic team, is a perfect illustration of why. On the surface it looks like a spin-off of the (criminally underrated) film Stick It, right down to the working-class girl, Emily (Chelsea Hobbs), who is brought in from Fresno (where she trained at the YMCA) to the nationally-rated Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Training Center (aka The Rock) in Boulder and becomes the odd girl out among the daughters of the ambitious and affluent. But it’s not about rebellion so much as issues facing all teenagers, in particular teenage girls, exacerbated by the stress of training and struggle and the pressures of expectations in a rarified culture of national competition, and each of the four girls at the core of the team embodies the conflicts and challenges: Emily, the tough girl with a single mom with the best intentions and epic bad decisions; Payson (Ayla Kell), the team superstar who has sacrificed everything to gymnastics (even as her supportive parents wish she would sometimes just have some fun); Lauren (Cassie Scerbo), the bitchy rich girl who sees Emily as a threat and backstabs even her best friends to secure her spot on the team; and Kaylie (Josie Loren), the daughter of a pro athlete who pushes her to succeed when she would be happy just to be like other girls.
There’s a whole soap opera of emotional crises spread across the girls and the families of their orbits but true to the channel’s focus, it’s all about being a teenage girl. The ten episodes of this two-disc set, which take them through the collapse and rebuilding of the team under a new coach and the march to the Junior Nationals in Boston, make up the first half of the debut season (which resumes this week on cable). The set also includes the featurette “Making It” (the young stars discuss balancing the physical demand of the role with the performance) and deleted scenes. The new season has just begun on ABC Family Channel.
United States Of Tara: The First Season (Paramount) came out at the end of 2009 but I didn’t get a chance to really look at the show until this year. Think of the show as Sybil turned into a sitcom mom in a cable TV universe. Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) is happily married to a loving husband (John Corbett) with healthy (if rebellious) kids and a career as an artist and decorator. And multiple personalities. It’s called dissociative identity disorder, or DID, and in the first episode of the high-concept Showtime series (created by Oscar-winning Juno writer Diablo Cody) she has gone off her meds and the “alters” (as they call the alternate identities) appear in times of stress. There’s “T,” the sassy and reckless teenager who just wants to have fun and doesn’t care about the damage, Alice, a homemaker right out of fifties TV land who would like nothing better than remake the family in her image, and the male alter Buck, a beer-drinking, gun-happy truck driver who likes to recall Vietnam experiences he never had. Max and the kids are amazingly tolerant of the intrusions (daughter Kate has connected with T and Max manages to get his guy time in with Buck) and the alters are absorbed into a strange family unit, even if Tara’s sister, the single and career-challenged Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt), doesn’t actually believe it’s anything but attention-seeking. Then, as the continuing therapy sessions to find the root of the disorder start to get too close to the buried trauma that brought them out in the first place, the alters start to get very protective and a new, unknown alter appears, and it’s a strange, animalistic, primal thing.
You won’t mistake this show for real psychological science and it has a tendency to play the gimmick for all it’s worth in the early episodes. It took me a while to warm to the show but after the teaming personalities settled in after a few episodes, I got over the gimmick and into the characters. Like so many other cable shows of unconventional family units, at its best the show uses the distorted perspective and extreme situations to get at familiar issues of parenting, marriage, adolescence, sibling jealousy and other facts of life. Collette slowly lets us see just how helpless Tara feels in the face of these other facets but also how terrified she is about discovering what trauma lies buried in her psyche and Corbett makes his support so warm and unconditional that it looks almost effortless, until he too allows the strain to crack through as the season develops. And as the show gets away from the comic complications created by the alters and focuses more on how their actions are expressions of Tara’s anxieties and desires (even in a negative way, as in the case of T), the concept starts to gel into something interesting.
12 half-hour episodes, plus commentary on one episode and a the first episode of The Tudors: Season Three. The rest of the supplements are mostly short promotional spots from Showtime and not particularly informative or enlightening: “Sitting Down with Diablo Cody” is less an interview than three minutes of arbitrary questions edited into a rapid-fire character piece that never touches on the show itself and “Tara’s Alters” profiles each of the identities without really exploring them. For the rest of the supplements (including short cast interviews), you need PC with a DVD player and an internet connection.
Also new on DVD this week: Acting Shakespeare (E1) with Ian McKellan, a tremendous one man show as acting master class recorded for TV and originally shown in 1982, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (Sony), a documentary originally made for HBO, and the season collections ER: The Complete Twelfth Season (Warner) and Ten Things I Hate About You: Volume One (Disney).