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TELEVISION REVIEW

Cruelty comes with a whistle

'Gym Teacher' has the usual feel-good-fare trappings -- except for a redeemable hero.

September 12, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

You have to believe that the pitch for Nickelodeon's first prime-time family movie was something along the lines of "Will Ferrell-light." "Gym Teacher: The Movie," which premieres tonight, is the story of a failed Olympic gymnast turned gym teacher who faces his last shot at glory in the form of a new National Gym Teacher of the Year contest.

Surely, if it were a feature film Ferrell would play child-man Dave Stewie, the gym teacher in question, because even with Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: SVU," "Oz") in the lead on Nick, it still echoes "Blades of Glory," "Semi-Pro" and "Kicking & Screaming."

There's a reason Ferrell films tend to be rated R and PG-13, and it's not just because of "language and some sexuality." The main rabbit-trick of loser-turned-winner comedies is humiliation -- the protagonist must be brought low to give his subsequent transformation that heady feel-good lift the genre requires. But humiliation is a tougher sell in a kids' film, especially these days when even the original "The Bad News Bears," with its unapologetic ethnic slurs and crude references, seems archaically offensive.

Although "Gym Teacher" doesn't go so far as to have its coach be a foul-mouthed alcoholic, it is a prime example of what can only be called Mean Kids TV. In going for what one can only imagine was, in their minds, campy good fun, writers Daniel and Steven Altiere pile their first two acts with so much that is trite, offensive and just plain nasty that by the time you get to the transformation part, it's hard to believe, or even care.

Stewie, we quickly learn, is the most popular teacher at Hamm Lake Junior High, perhaps because he allows eighth-graders to cut class for a rousing game of dodge ball and casually uses terms like "spaz." As in, "I know a spaz when I see one."

Having skipped whatever sensitivity training Hamm Lake had to offer, it is not surprising that he allows himself to be panted over by principal Abby Hofmann. It seems impossible that such a famous name would be used unintentionally -- surely this is a bone thrown to middle-aged parents -- but the only thing radical about the high-haired nightmare played by Amy Sedaris is her ability to crudely admire the way Stewie fills out his shorts without being dismissed for sexual harassment.

Stewie, meanwhile, instantly falls for new teacher Winnie Bleeker (Chelah Horsdal) -- we know he's fallen for her because he begins fantasizing about her in a cheerleading costume. Scarred by his Olympics humiliation, Stewie is reluctant to take part in the just-announced national competition. But later, he signs up after the obligatory overbearing coach from a competing prep school (an invective throwing, cashmere-hat-wearing David Alan Grier) trash-talks him in the local gym teacher bar.

As luck would have it, the very next day gym class is interrupted by new student Roland Waffle (Nathan Kress), a boy so complete in his "spaz"-dom that he wears a safety helmet and elbow guards, and talks about science fiction. Within minutes, the eighth-graders have him strung up and are chucking balls at him. Go team.

Soon Stewie is trying to get Roland expelled so he won't wreck the "team's" chances for success, until he finds that Winnie is his overly protective mom. Then, Stewie begins to understand that Winning Is Not Everything. Unfortunately, before this fresh and important lesson can be learned, all possible sympathy has been leeched away.

Because no matter how badly traumatized one may be, there is nothing funny about a grown man conspiring with his mean little gym class against an eighth-grade kid. Even if he does wear a safety helmet. With deely boppers on it.

In the end, of course, "good" triumphs over "evil," except it doesn't. Because pretty much every professional involved in the competition should be fired. At the very least the rather admirable cast should be allowed a do-over with a script that doesn't confuse petulance with wit or meanness with misdirection.

That said, Meloni does fill out those shorts very nicely.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Gym Teacher: The Movie'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 8 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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