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New series review: Shaq's Big Challenge (ABC)

Shaq and the kids, and with his personal trainer, "Doc" Colker.

Premiering: Tuesday, June 26th at 8 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Shaquille O'Neal, six kids and six specialists
Produced by: Rick Ringbakk, Greg Goldman, Shaquille O'Neal

Frankly, these six kids are pretty pitiful. Otherwise there wouldn't be a show.

Shaq's Big Challenge doesn't try to demean them, though. And that's important, because some of his young charges are diagnosed as "morbidly obese" on the road to being dead in a much bigger hurry than they'd like. Three can't do a single situp; four can't manage even one pushup. And they've already been the butts of enough fat jokes to last them a lifetime.

So it's Shaquille O'Neal to the rescue -- and on a mission he really seems to believe in. That's what makes the first two episodes of this reality series easier to swallow than one of those baby carrots that one kid says he's never had. Shaq's Big Challenge, premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m. (central), is involving, inspiring and surprisingly touching at times.

Unlike NBC's The Biggest Loser, it's without any carnival midway additives or team competitions leading to eliminations. These six kids are treated as a single team looking to gain self-esteem by shedding all those potentially lethal pounds they've put on.

Acne-plagued Walter, a 14-year-old, 285-pounder, is a lonely video game addict whom Shaq deems his biggest challenge.

"You're not gonna quit because I'm not gonna let you quit," O'Neal tells him.

Kit, one of two girls in the group, is the same age as Walter and nearly as heavy at 263 pounds. She becomes an early dropout, but will she drop back in? It's easy to feel for her.

James, 11, weighs 182 pounds but is destined to catch up in no time. His mother's an enabler, dousing a typical batch of popcorn with two sticks of butter.

Some of the early narration can be off-putting, particularly when we're told that "Shaquille has just six months to change the future, and save a generation" from the epidemic of child obesity.

But our hero isn't portrayed as Superman. He's alternately cocky and frustrated, with his personal trainer and physician, "Doc" Colker, both bringing him down and bucking him up.

Also on board are hard-core fitness taskmaster Tarik Tyler, nutritionist Joy Bauer and O'Neal's former Lousiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown, all of whom provide the show's star with extra moral support and muscle. But the kids are the magnets, drawing viewers in while at the same time bringing out Shaq's tender and defiant sides. He's a real presence on this show, especially with Walter, Kit and the others in his presence.

Shaq's Big Challenge no doubt uses some editing tricks to ramp up the drama. At its heart, though, it really has a heart. These six kids seem all too emblematic of a generation that sits first -- and then has a pizza. Maybe this show will help persuade some parents that this often is very much their fault, too.

Grade: B