By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
When Shaquille O'Neal was 11, he was so abnormally large that he had to bring his birth certificate when trick-or-treating. Never mind the phenomenal talent that would be evident young and that has carried him to four NBA championships and a stratospheric career. For years, he felt like an outsider and was treated like a freak.
O'Neal rarely touches on that personal history in his new ABC reality show, "Shaq's Big Challenge," but it's hard to believe that it didn't influence his choice of subject: the epidemic that is childhood obesity. Over the span of six months, O'Neal -- a seven-footer who's 335 pounds -- conducts an intervention in the lives of six South Florida kids who range in age from 11 to 14 and in weight from 182 to 285. By his own description, he is determined to "save lives" by putting them through a program of healthy eating and exercise.
A reality show could easily exploit this situation and not be sympathetic to the fact it's hard enough to be the "fat kid" in day-to-day life, let alone on television. For obese children and their parents, such national exposure is a risk, and for what -- getting to meet Shaq? Sure, that's cool, and probably was a lure, but even on "reality" TV, reality soon sets in.
What works about "Shaq's Big Challenge" is that the program -- and particularly O'Neal -- comes across as genuinely concerned with these kids in all their appealing quirks and vulnerabilities. Yes, sometimes they are reduced to tears (particularly when facing MRI evidence of the severe extent of their obesity, as such words as "morbidity" are used). But they don't come across as pathetic or worthy of scorn; they're at risk, real and highly worthy of every ounce of intervention.
In the early going, at least, there's nothing funny or quippy about this show, unless it's funny-sad, such as the 11-year-old who explains how he likes his cheeseburgers topped with French fries (inside the bun), or a 14-year-old (who weighs 285) bragging about the gaming equipment he's on six hours a day. At the start of the project, half the kids can't manage a single sit-up or push-up and struggle to complete a 17-minute mile.
Given his years of celebrity, O'Neal is natural and comfortable before the camera -- in all his utter "Shaqness" -- rather than as an athlete trying to play actor or host. (He's had plenty of practice, with numerous movies -- like "Blue Chips" and "The Kid & I" -- and many television appearances as himself, ever the multimedia phenomenon.)
Despite his tough-love bluster, O'Neal is the real softy here. When his own personal physician-trainer (the bad cop from the get-go) calls out the kids individually for lying or cheating on their diets or exercise regimens, it's O'Neal who bends over the boy who's trying to hide his tears and gently whispers: Keep your head up. When another kid admits he never gets any valentines in class, O'Neal admits he was once that child, too.
To guide the regimen, there's a team of experts, including the physician-trainer who is O'Neal's eyes, ears and right-hand guy (Carlon "Doc" Colker); a nutritionist (Joy Bauer); a doctor who specializes in childhood obesity (William Muinos); and a tough-as-nails personal trainer (Tarik Tyler). And their presence is key: In one pivotal scene, a girl suffers an anxiety attack and collapses after an early workout. Colker and Tyler insist it's an emotional response and must reassure O'Neal that the show isn't causing one of the kids to have a heart attack.
The scene underscores the delicate balance between pushing these kids too hard -- at times they're chastised for flouting the rules -- and making sure not to damage their sometimes already-vulnerable self-esteem.
For viewers wanting an insider's look at Shaq's world, there are snippets -- such as an appearance by Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and a cameo by Dale Brown, O'Neal's coach at LSU -- as well as film from inside his Florida mansion. (Brown, it should be noted, helps O'Neal with efforts to mandate physical education in schools; O'Neal also says he's taking his crusade against obesity into the political arena.)
But ultimately, "Shaq's Big Challenge" is far less about Shaq than it is about these kids and the epidemic they embody.
Now, if only the ABC show's Web site wouldn't feature an ad for Dove ice cream.
Shaq's Big Challenge (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7.