This weekend, a group of young women—girls, they might be called in another context, in their teens and early 20s—competed to become part of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. In the end, the five selected to represent the U.S. in Rio were Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, returning to the sport after their gold-winning efforts in London; Simone Biles, the all-around world champion for three years running; Laurie Hernandez; and Madison Kocian. (Ashton Locklear, MyKayla Skinner, and Ragan Smith will be alternates.) This was the team that was expected to result before the trials started; the young women are, given their strengths and their particular mix of talents and skills, are favorites to win all-around gold.
For viewers, women’s gymnastics is steadfastly popular because of the juxtapositions the sport offers: It is a tangle not just of sport and artistry, but also of youth and adulthood, of preparation and spontaneity, of physical strength and more more ephemeral femininity. (“Don’t cry,” one of the athletes admonished another on Sunday night after a particularly spectacular performance. “You’ll ruin your makeup.”) They’re collisions—all that human stuff, balancing and vaulting and glittering—that make you want to know the backstories of each athlete. And while NBC will surely supply those stories in August, in the form of the treacly mini-documentaries that accompany the competition, in the intervening weeks there is a very good stand-in: Make It or Break It, the gymnastics-themed drama that aired on ABC Family (now renamed Freeform) from 2009 to 2012. The show is, essentially, the heavily fictionalized version of what played out this weekend.
Make It or Break It, which is now available on both Freeform and Hulu, among other platforms, is a typical teen-focused soap opera: Think Pretty Little Liars, but with leotards. It focuses on a small group of elite gymnasts who train at the Rocky Mountain Gymnastics Training Center (“The Rock”), a Colorado-based gym known as a feeder for the Olympics. There’s Payson Keeler (Ayla Kell), a powerhouse who’s the favorite to win gold; Kaylie Cruz (Josie Loren), wealthy and charismatic, who is particularly talented as a tumbler; and Lauren Tanner (Cassie Scerbo), the quintessential mean girl who is, within The Rock and perhaps the world, “queen of the beam.”
Together, the teenagers are expected to head to the Olympics—three members of what their coach expects will be the greatest U.S. Olympic team of all time—and they are all doing their part to fulfill that expectation. Until, that is, their longstanding plans are disrupted by a newcomer, Emily Kmetko (Chelsea Hobbs), a bundle of talent in need of training who has come to The Rock by way of a series of scholarships. Early on in the show’s first season, the typical dynamics of tween-focused soap operatics kick in: Will Emily’s arrival cause tensions? Will Lauren, the schemer, do whatever she can to stay on top? Will pathos both human and athletic coincide in the form of dramatic gymnastics meets? Yes. And yes. And yes.
Make It or Break It is not, to be clear, a great TV show, in the manner of the prestige stuff viewers are accustomed to today. (It is, as The A.V. Club put it, “not high art. It’s not even really middle art. More than anything, it’s probably what one would call a guilty pleasure, if one was predisposed towards feeling guilt over their entertainment choices.”) It is also, in the year of Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas and Laurie Hernandez, disappointing in its lack of diversity. And yet: It is compelling. It is addictive. That’s because of the smaller-scale tensions that it explores—the ones that result from the human pressures that face a collection of young women who carry the hopes of so many people on their muscular shoulders. This is a show that takes the cares of its young protagonists seriously.
Make It or Break It is frank about eating disorders, and about self-esteem, and about the financial costs of elite training, and about the social sacrifices that training demands of girls who are otherwise typical teenagers. In its universe, the moral lessons of, say, Twilight—a series at the height of its cultural influence when Make It or Break It arrived—are rendered especially (you could almost say absurdly) poignant: For these athletes, romance in general and sex in particular can compromise one’s career in an instant, via either lost focus or an unplanned pregnancy. (In an especially ironic twist, Chelsea Hobbs, who played Emily and who was 24 at the time the show premiered, got pregnant during filming—a particular challenge for a show that emphasizes its cast’s bodies, and that caused her, as a result, to leave Make It or Break It after the second season.)
But the show, in an elegant fusion of the structure of the soap opera and the realities of sports competition, is perhaps at its most compelling in its emphasis on the networked aspects of elite athleticism. Here are young women whose families and colleagues and coaches are relying on them, financially and otherwise, to succeed in their short “careers.” (As Lauren’s smarmy father sums it up: “They’re not little girls; they’re big business.”) And here, too, are girls who share the camaraderie of sacrifice: They are members of the very small group who understand what it means to give up so much of their childhoods to a single dream.
Gymnastics is exhilarating to watch not just because of the way its events defy gravity, but also because of its on-the-ground realities. In competition, all the work and the want and the sacrifice gets distilled down to a single grasped bar, a single flip of the torso, a single landing. Make It or Break It understands all that, in that sense makes for nice viewing in the run-up to its real-world counterpart. The show knows, perhaps even better than the Olympics’ producers do, that while gymnastics may be a team sport, in practice it is an individual one: one person, one moment, one shot. One longstanding dream that can be realized, or shattered, in an instant.