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TV Series Review

Watch your backs Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard. There’s a mob of kids hot on your heels. The staggeringly successful American Idol is on hiatus until 2004, but in the meantime it has spawned a pint-sized version of itself, American Juniors. This new talent show (Tuesdays on Fox) puts 6- to 13-year-olds onstage with the goal of creating a marketable five-member musical group.

Simon Cowell and his acid tongue are noticeably absent, but don’t think these youngsters are getting off easy. "Anyone who expected American Juniors would do a 180-degree turn from American Idol and treat its hopefuls with gentle respect doesn’t understand how networks get ratings on TV," wrote New York Daily News critic-at-large David Hinckley. There are lots of tears, lots of flubs and lots of laughs—sometimes at the little ones’ expense.

Some American Juniors are eager to compete, but there are more than a few getting dragged along by ambitious parents. That’s unhealthy. So are images of tots and tweens dressing and dancing for maximum sex appeal.

Whereas Idol focuses its cameras solely on the performers, Juniors splits time between children and parents. Before the series premiered in June, co-producer Nigel Lythgoe expressed amazement at how far some parents pushed things. "I’ve got moms on tape swearing like troopers in front of their kids," he said, "and the kids’ eyes are down to the ground. There’s going to be a lot of bleeps here." He wasn’t kidding. In the first episode, one brash stage mom hurled f- and s-words at a cameraman.

Other parents model restraint and good judgment, so the field doesn’t feel too tilted. Those contrasts may spark discussion in living rooms nationwide. Parents might ask in the wake of an abrasive outburst, "Do I ever embarrass you like that mom embarrassed her daughter?" After watching another mom build up her son by saying, "He’s a star in our eyes already. He doesn’t need a TV show for us to feel that way about him," it’s worth asking, "Do you feel I show you that kind of support and loyalty? How?" All it takes is seeing parents furtively rolling their eyes or grimacing over their kids’ performances to remind us how hurtful those careless nonverbal reactions can be to youngsters desperate for our approval.

Despite obvious flaws, American Juniors abounds with teachable moments. Families just have to take time to talk about what they’re watching. Millions are tuning in. I hope most resist the temptation to simply giggle at the "losers" and fawn over the "winners."

Episodes Reviewed: June 3, 10, 2003

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Steven Isaac

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