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Soccer series keeps personalities in play

April 08, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Just for Kicks," a sprightly new "TEENick" series premiering Sunday night at 7 on Nickelodeon, tells the story of four rookies on a New York City girls' soccer team. Nowhere in the credits does it say, "Inspired by the box-office receipts for 'Bend It Like Beckham,' " though you would be surprised how much people in Hollywood are aware of such things. (Whoopi Goldberg, who has produced and starred in Nick Jr.'s "Littleburg" specials, developed the show, and executive produces alongside vets of "That's So Raven," "Even Stevens" and "The Secret World of Alex Mack.") But it's not like you can copyright soccer, the most global of all sports, or even the title "Just for Kicks," which was already attached to another soccer movie a few years back. Millions of American kids play it now, and also watch TV, and some of them are even the children of people who work in television. A second-grader could do that math.

Sports stories play a long and illustrious part in children's fiction and film: They are about character building and team spirit, about dedication and pluck, which are all things that older people want younger people to care about. They are about how you play the game, but they are also very much about winning because, according to the logic of these things, winners can't be losers. (Typically in sports movies, for young and/or old, losers become the winners they really were all along: your "Bad News Bears," "Mighty Ducks," "Damn Yankees," "Shaolin Soccer" and so on.)

The Power Strikers, the team at issue here, are definitely not losers. In fact, according to their coach (cute, comical Englishman Craig Young, who was in the pop group Deuce and the soccer drama "Dream Team"), they're "a highly competitive, no-nonsense, kick-'em-in-the-teeth soccer club" and anyone not ready to get with that program can take their cleats and go home. Since they don't need to prove themselves by winning, because we take it for granted that they will, we focus not on the team, but the teammates.

They are all different, our four protagonists, and each in her own way special. As is often the case in kids' programming, the cast is determinedly multiethnic, but the kids themselves are all colorblind -- their resentments are based more on class and unfair physical beauty, while their attractions are equal-opportunity. The producers have subverted some expectations, however -- Freddie (Mallory Low), who as the relatively average girl would in most cases be the person the relatively average viewer would identify with, is so blinded by resentment of popular, pretty Alexa (Francesca Catalano) as to be often unlikable, while Alexa, despite being popular, pretty and a cheerleader, is decent and friendly. That is how it goes in the actual world sometimes.

The quartet is rounded out by Vida (Jessica Williams), who is tall and a star and a speaker of her mind, and Lauren (Katija Pevec) a naive overachiever with a protective mom. They and everybody they know meet at a cafe called @titude -- clever, what? -- where they sip teen-friendly blended drinks in designer colors. With their Big Apple adolescent foursomeness, they suggest a kind of "Not Ready for Sex and the City." (Though Lauren has a crush on Alexa's brother, Chris, played by Jerad Anderson, she's not even worldly enough to know that the words, "You should come" do not constitute being asked out on a date. Samantha would never make that mistake -- not even would Charlotte.)

There are only a couple of small things to say against the series, which is well-played and zippy and amusing and unpretentious overall, and which has been made with clearly the best of intentions toward its audience -- it even wants you to know that "brown rice is cool!" For one, the soccer scenes could be more intelligible and less tricky -- they pour on the whip pans and shock zooms and fast edits to give an impression of speed and athleticism, but miss the real excitement and elegance of the sport, that certain thing that comes through even in a static longshot of an active soccer pitch.

And, though I don't mean to single out this quite decent show for something that's been standard practice since moving pictures were invented, it's disappointing that a series so insistent on its New York City setting -- there is even an "Explore NYC" feature on its website -- has been largely filmed on the NBC Universal back lot. (There are the usual slamming montages of Manhattan landmarks between scenes to establish place.) Hanging a sign that says "Central Park" at one end of the soccer field is no substitute for being there, and I look forward to a series about urban kids that gives them the actual city to play in. You can just call that a pet peeve.

Otherwise, girls -- you go.


`Just for Kicks'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-Y7 (for children age 7 and above)

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