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Shaq, kids battle the bulge in "Challenge"

June 26, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Life and death" is a phrase used loosely in popular culture -- like "I'm starving," it means something less than it says -- but "Shaq's Big Challenge" can lay some honest claim to it. Based on the British series "Unfit Kids" and hosted by basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, "Challenge" (which premieres tonight on ABC) attempts to bring six dangerously overweight middle-schoolers back from obesity.

It's a moving and sometimes funny series whose real drama manages to cut through the reality-TV show swaddling in which the producers -- makers also of "Wife Swap," "Junkyard Wars" and "Survival of the Richest" -- have wrapped it. It's as if they didn't quite trust the story they were telling -- or, just as likely, trust the viewers they were telling it to -- and so they decided to tell it twice as hard.

"Schools, families and even the government have done little to fight this crippling disease: Now one man has stepped forward to lead the fight," we're told. That O'Neal -- abetted by expert aides, including Dale Brown, his former coach from Louisiana State University, and Food Network chef Tyler Florence -- "has just six months to change the future ... and save a generation" has more to do with the hyperbole and time limits of makeover shows (the Joneses are arriving in two minutes and the shelves aren't done) than with actually tackling a problem.

It has also been decided to make this in part O'Neal's story: The man who has referred to himself as "the Almighty Conceitedness" finds that what he thought would be easy -- he is given to statements such as "Dr. O'Neal is here to rectify the situation" -- would actually be hard. No less frustrating for him is a complementary story line in which he campaigns to get physical education back into the schools.

"If we have enough money to send children to war, we should have enough money to send children to mandatory P.E.," says the man who has called himself "the Big Aristotle."

For all the show's artifice, it is full of true sad facts, and the kids (who range in age from 11 to 14 and in weight from 182 to 285 pounds) are only ever genuine. They're sweet and expressive and, with the usual caveats applying to kids their age, keenly perceptive and the way they support one another is beyond touching. (The show pretty much sets them up to fail before they succeed.)

And O'Neal is clearly sincere, even when called on to participate in some obviously arranged bit of business. (It helps, in a way, that he's a bad actor -- you can tell when he's being real.) Something of a kid himself -- he likes to slap his hand on the jamb as he ducks through a doorway and pretend that he hit his head -- and a self-proclaimed outsider, he's good with these young people; he feels their pain. They love him back.

While it's debatable how much widespread practical good will come from a summer replacement junior version of "The Biggest Loser," it may nevertheless be regarded as at least partial penance for commercial television's long-standing war on children. McDonald's uses a clown to sell its stuff, and O'Neal himself has shilled for Burger King (and other such purveyors of fats and sugars), although he quit selling junk food a few years back. You can't say as much for TV.


`Shaq's Big Challenge'

Where: ABC

When: 9 to 10 tonight

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

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