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As a motivator, Shaq falls short

June 25, 2007|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Obesity is the reality show world's cause du jour since fat people, it seems, make for good TV. We've already had NBC's "Biggest Loser," TLC's "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" and "Big Medicine," and VH-1's "Celebrity Fit Club." Coming later this summer is ABC's "Fat March," in which overweight contestants lose weight by walking hundreds of miles along the East Coast.

And now this: "Shaq's Big Challenge," in which Miami Heat basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal sets out to save American youth from eating themselves into oblivion.

That's the uber-mission the outsized athlete goes on in this six-week ABC series beginning Tuesday (it's based on a British show, "Ian Wright's Unfit Kids"). O'Neal's goal is to take a half-dozen morbidly obese middle-schoolers (four boys and two girls) and turn them into lean, mean, exercise-loving machines. But that's not all -- he and his cohorts (a physician, trainer, coach and nutritionist) also aim to upgrade the P.E. and cafeteria offerings at a Florida middle school attended by some of the kids, thereby setting up a prototype for schools nationwide.

In the first episode, we meet the six, including 11-year-old James, a junk-food junkie whose mother admits to serving popcorn drowned in two sticks of butter, yet despairs that her son is heavy. Chris' family has developed a habit of eating large and fattening dinners, so the 11-year-old believes a portion size is a platter-full.

O'Neal shows up at each child's house to scenes of painfully disingenuous surprise. Still, the father of six seems unpretentious and quietly charming.

But before the healthy lifestyles kick off, the kids are put through physical and medical tests. Not surprisingly, they fail miserably at all. Most can't do a single push-up and their body fat percentage is abysmally high -- as much as 50%. MRIs show the undeniable consequence of morbid obesity -- visceral fat enveloping their organs like so much marshmallow fluff.

By the time the kids hit the gym, they've pledged to drop pounds and get healthy. That, of course, lasts about a day as the alleged workout sessions dissolve into naps, dodge ball and other shenanigans. Some kids don't even bother to show up.

In the show's second installment, that behavior draws ire from O'Neal and Dr. Carlon Colker, billed as the athlete's personal physician and trainer. Here is where the show heads directly south. After listening to the kids' teary-eyed confessions about being bullied by their peers for being fat, the grown-ups -- including parents -- bully them too, berating them for slacking off and not taking their weight loss seriously.

But they're kids. And kids -- especially overweight, out-of-shape ones -- shouldn't be expected to happily trudge to the gym every day, get on a treadmill and sweat it up without any kind of supervision or direction. Most adults can't even keep that up past a couple of months. So why the dramatic scolding? Apparently it paves the way for the introduction of mohawked and tattooed trainer Tarik Tyler, who's hellbent on whipping butts into shape. Shame on the producers for such a gratuitous set-up. If that wasn't bad enough, Tyler says of the children, "I knew they were going to be fat, but I didn't know they were going to be that fat." Nice.

Immediately Tyler puts the kids through intense drills that elicit a mini-breakdown from 14-year-old Kit, who's ultimately carted away in an ambulance (she's later found to be OK). While some are beginning to appreciate the feel of a good sweat, most appear to wish Tyler would bounce out of their lives on a giant stability ball.

Hmmm. Encouraging exercise by hiring a drill sergeant the kids despise? Yep, there's a formula for success. Did anyone bother to find out what kids' fitness programs have proven effective? No doubt they haven't involved a barking drill sergeant. We can only hope something more fun and sustainable is found for these deserving kids.

Maybe Shaq's bigger challenge should have been finding a way to help at-risk youth that's far less exploitive and cruel.



'Shaq's Big Challenge'

Where: ABC

When: 9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).

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