Nickelodeon Heroines (3/3) Lauren Zelmer

I’ll just be upfront about it: Just for Kicks is not very good. Rewatching it recently, I have to admit it’s worse than I remembered in fact. It does get more focused as it goes on, and I think it’s likely they could’ve reorganized and found their voice in a second season. Seinfeld, Rugrats and lots of other shows struggle to find their groove the first year.

In the first place, I don’t think the show needed four main characters. In particular, I don’t think Freddy adds anything of value since her entire shtick is just that she’s kinda tomboyish and clumsy. Vida is a little too one dimensional role model-leader-goody two shoes. Alexa has some great potential for drama and development with her old popular friends not approving of soccer, but it’s never explored beyond the pilot. It feels like they could have merged some of Vida/Freddy/Alexa’s sparse defining characteristics into one or possibly two characters. There was the potential for a great character in all those traits but spread over 3 people, each of which with their own lines and subplots, it feels stretched thin.

The show doesn’t always know what to do with the non-main cast either. The mean girl Dana who seemed like a decent antagonist is never seen or mentioned again after one episode. There’s even a scene where Alexa’s big brother Chris randomly confides in her soccer coach about his feelings where the coach actually calls attention to how ridiculous it is that he (Chris) is talking to him (coach). Chris’ friend usually fulfills that role, but he’s totally underwritten as well and serves no purpose other than giving Chris somebody to talk to. Presumably the idea was to give guy viewers characters they’d watch the show for, but let’s be honest, with the theme song on this show that was never going to happen. It’d be better to just pick one thing and do it right as opposed to wear down your 22 minutes spending 3 minutes here and 3 minutes there trying to please everybody.

Besides Lauren (more on her later), none of the other 3 girls seem to have obvious strong arcs or plausible niches in the world they’re supposed to live in:

Freddy has no obvious path to develop or change. She lives with her kooky grandma being a goofball. Her plotlines are as awful as a fear of public bathrooms, jealousy her grandma likes Lauren more, and spraining her leg. Her pratfalls don’t suit the show well and aren’t that funny even by kid show standards. She doesn’t grow or change and I cannot see what they could possibly do with her going forward.

Vida is already well rounded and perfect. She’s the best athlete on the team, poached for some Olympic team or something. She’s the one always giving advice and standing up for others. She has an annoying little brother who’s embarrassing to watch and a bitchy sister who’s underdeveloped. There is potential here, granted, and she’s acted well enough, but as a character she’s already pretty much grown. You could maybe explore the relationship with her sister I guess, but again that means taking time away from the 4 leads and their dynamic.

Alexa conquered her arc (unsupportive friends) in a single episode. In another episode where she’s worried what her friends will think of her new job, the conflict is over in two quick scenes. That said, I think there was potential here to have that “conforming to standards,”/”being yourself against peer pressure” angle be an ongoing subplot. They just blew their load too quickly. Going forth, once Alexa’s brother starts dating Lauren, there was also potential to deal with the awkwardness of your bro dating your best friend and being stuck in the middle. Unfortunately the show was canceled before we got to see how that might work out.

As for the supporting cast, the family sitcom dynamics in Vida’s house, and the underwritten banter between Chris and his friend (I honestly already forget his name) doesn’t have a purpose on this show. The scenes with these characters are very bland and just rob screen-time from the 4 girls actually interacting and playing soccer. And that’s a damn shame, because the four actresses do actually have chemistry, and the premise of a show about girl athletes was pretty unique and had potential. By falling back on “annoying siblings fighting!!!” humor for uninspired B-plots and occasional aimless scenes, it almost feels like the writers didn’t fully believe in that awesome premise they had. In one episode (“I’ll Cry if I Want To”) there are no less than THREE ongoing plot lines, with the two that don’t focus on the girls each building up to a lame punchline you saw coming a mile away. This sucks because the rest of the episode is actually my favorite of the series and the only time we ever really sit down and see all four girls interact with each other in a prolonged, meaningful, interpersonal way.

In short, with four girls AND all their families, it’s just too much to juggle in twenty two minutes. For reference, Clarissa, Kenan and Kel and Drake and Josh episodes had one plotline each, and had one family to focus on. Pete and Pete had one or two plots, one family. Less is more, and if the show had gotten a second season they would have done well to trim the cast. I think everyone who doesn’t directly interact with all the girls on a regular basis should have been cut, with the exception of Lauren’s mother who is important to her daughter’s character arc. This would eliminate Freddy’s grandma (if they didn’t cut Freddy herself too), Vida’s family and Chris’ friend. Since he and Lauren started dating in the last episode, Chris could just confide in her, and if he’s confiding about her, he could use Alexa. These kinds of cast switch-ups are not unheard of. I know Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Drake and Josh also fine-tuned the cast after the first season. So did the Garfield comic strip with Lyman.


The Most Sympathetic Live Action Nick Character Ever

As it turns out, the absolute saving grace of Just for Kicks, and what makes it worth checking out despite its significant structural flaws (plus the usual tween sitcom cheesiness) is the character of Lauren Zelmer. I know this is gonna sound like I’m putting her on a pedestal, maybe even because of my old, brief crush from when I first saw the show as a teen. But for real. Katija Pevec is the best actress on the show, and her character was not only the most interesting but also had the most room to develop over time.

Lauren has the worst home-life, with an extremely overbearing mother and a divorce alluded to. As a result, she is very shy, repressed and tightly wound. (She actually reminds me a lot of myself at that age, for what it’s worth.) Out of all the girls, Lauren seems to need this soccer team the most as some kind of social outlet and time to unwind. You get the sense that if it were not for the team, Vida and Freddy would be playing another sport and doing fine, and Alexa would still be a popular cheerleader. Yet Lauren has absolutely no friends or hobbies outside of soccer due to her overprotective mom and hectic schedule. (The other programs she’s signed up for are all for college prep and presumably against her will.)

I love the dynamic with Lauren and her mom, because we see how her mom is working two jobs and overexerts herself as well. In some ways the Mom takes out her stress on Lauren but you can also see where it comes from. She wants Lauren to get in a good college and have a good life so she won’t struggle in the same way. Yet by constantly pushing Lauren into a million activities and college prep, the mom is unwittingly putting her in exactly the same spot now as a teen. I love this characterization because it speaks to a real and overlooked problem with kids today, the over-emphasizing and over-preparing for college.

(ASIDE: I didn’t have it as bad as Lauren or some other people, but I felt it too. Coming home from school and passing out every day, staying up until 2 or 3 AM to get all my work for AP and Honors classes done, having to keep a job and balance it with extra curriculars. All that, just to get yelled at for taking a much-needed nap when I got home and pushed into a college I didn’t want to go to, had no plan for once I was there, and get saddled with insurmountable debt for my troubles. The fast track blows as does the idea that college right after graduation is the only option, and the way we pressure secondary school kids is legit abuse as far as I’m concerned. It’s great to see a tween sitcom tackle this serious issue because to my knowledge, none has before or since.)

Katija’s Finest Hour

Probably my favorite episode if you ignore the lame, unnecessary side-plots was “Ill Cry If I Want To” because it shows what Lauren’s like in a social setting. She’s very noticeably awkward, constantly taken advantage of, and her mom calls practically every hour. Katija does a really good job making you feel for the character; there’s fearful expressions on her face, looking down at the ground, and subtle breaks in her voice that communicate Lauren’s discomfort. It’s adorably sad seeing her struggle to connect with people when she doesn’t know the media they consume, or slang, so she defaults to spouting scientific facts about some of the topics her peers have referenced instead. (“Shark’s rarely attack people unless they’re provoked.”) The entire episode you just want somebody to give her a hug and say “Crazy 8s sounds fine with me Lauren 😊”

When Lauren snaps at the end of the episode and starts yelling at everyone, it feels believable rather than forced as it would under a typical teen actor. As the girls reconcile and have a pillow fight in the final scene, she finally loosens up and starts laughing with the best of them. In just this one episode, you see Katija’s range as an actress while the rest of the cast, tho still fun and totally passable for a kids show, are more noticeably one-note. That’s the whole show in a microcosm. One character has compelling flaws and goes through growth. Meanwhile Vida is just a one-note goody-good leader, Alexa is popular and desired by boys, Freddy…makes prat falls and drops stuff. Anyone can see who the clear standout is, writing and acting-wise.

Coming Out of Her Shell

Lauren begins to grow and assert herself through the series. She stands up to her mom after seeing a stressed out corporate husk of a woman on the train. “I don’t wanna end up like that lady we saw on the train. […] Mom, it’s Saturday! I can’t do this, I can’t work my butt off day and night striving for success just to end up working on a train on Saturday!” Like…damn. I’ve yet to see another show aimed at tween girls be that real about priorities and a proper work/life balance before. As I’ve said earlier, it’s an important but overlooked value these days. So many tween shows are either about the cool vivacious perfect girl you’re meant to be jealous of (Hannah Montana, Zoey 101) or the uncool total-loser pining for a boy forever and whose biggest worry is being kissed (Unfabulous.) They don’t have real problems to overcome, set a believable standard to follow or maintain healthy priorities and in my opinion it sends a bad message to kids. It’s nice to see a well-rounded girl with actual serious but common issues who takes realistic steps towards dealing with them. In that sense, Lauren is a great role model for very young women.

When Lauren begins dating Chris you really see her start to blossom. In the first episode she can barely speak in his presence. By the end, she’s confident enough to share her interest in Greek Mythology and see him as an equal rather than an idealization. But then there’s a great scene when her mother finds out they’re going out, and Lauren slinks into a corner, looking down at her feet again. With those small but horrifying gestures of submission, you know she’s still got some growing to do. Out of all the leads, Lauren’s plot lines are all related and built towards this arc of winning Chris and beginning to stand up to her mom rather than the haphazard misadventures that just sort fizzle out in the last episode which plague the other girls’ screen time. She’s the only one who’s grown as a character since the first episode, where the others languish in the all-important status quo.

I like how the show was brave enough to get her and Chris together within the first season rather than string it along for years, like Zoey and Chase or Addie and Jake or just about every other tween sitcom pairing ever. That took guts. And I think the writers did so because they realized the status quo wasn’t working and the cast needed to become more centralized. I also think they realized quickly if they hadn’t known from the start that Katija was their best actress, so they set up Season 2 to give her more to do and a more central role. I would love to know what they had in mind for the future if the show continued. Lauren still had a long way to go and it would’ve been awesome to see her fully come into herself. For that alone, I’ll always be sad Just for Kicks never got at least one more season. At the same time, with the way things played out, I’ll always be strangely honored my appreciation for this adorable, forgotten character (and teen crush on the actress who played her) saved the show from being a piece of lost media forever.

Conclusion

Decent tween show whose execution betrays a unique premise. It needed a good deal of work. Besides my earlier suggestions, I think the theme song is incredibly cheesy. It honestly makes me feel embarrassed when I’m watching, so I usually fast forward it. I could totally see that alone alienating boys or older girls from tuning in. I also think the name “power strikers” for the team was pretty corny. Like, they really couldn’t think of something less. like what a five year old calls his action figures? But you know, at the end of the day, when I finished the last episode I wanted to see these characters again and know what would happen next. And ultimately, that means a show has done its job.

And, once again, I think Katija Pevec was a talented young actress and it’s a genuine shame this was her only really big gig. I think it was the one-two punch of debuting in a critically panned film (Your’s, Mine and Ours) plus a one-season show that doomed her career before it began. But she did an awesome job her playing a likable and well-rounded character here. Similar to Clarissa Explains It All, the program as a whole is pretty corny and in a few places, even cringe-inducing. But what makes it special to me is the cool, relatable character at the heart of it. When I watched Clarissa again as an adult, I was amazed at how similar to her I’d become, with the crazy outfits, free spiritedness, and offbeat references. When I watched JFK again, I was reminded how shy, constrained and uncomfortable I used to be as a teen (and still am now sometimes). Nick shows weren’t exactly high art, but they had a tendency to make you really care about some of the characters in them.

Be kind to the Laurens of the world, the shy friend or quiet one in the corner. They’re often shouldering a heavier burden than you know.


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