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'Venus & Serena': Reality TV Tennis Siblings

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The newest reality TV show on the cable channel ABC Family stars tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams. The show's called "Venus & Serena: For Real." It debuts tonight. Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with this review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

Great female athletes have always faced a dilemma: How deeply do they indulge in the world of celebrity without sacrificing their integrity? It's a particularly thorny question for good-looking athletes. Note how Anna Kournikova is far better known for her style than her serve.

So it goes for Venus and Serena Williams. They maintain a commanding presence on the women's tennis tour, but they're telegenic enough that their image threatens to overshadow their game. So it was with a little trepidation that I watched them wade into the rough waters of reality TV. Surprisingly, the sisters' reputations remain intact. But then "Venus & Serena: For Real" isn't too fascinating a portrait.

At 25, Venus is coming off a big win at Wimbledon, but it's her 23-year-old sister that is currently ranked higher among the female players. And as we learn on the show, Serena is also the more flamboyant of the two, with dreams of transitioning to acting and fashion. Venus seems more subdued, but she too has a life away from the court, like her own interior design firm.

The series follows the sisters from tournament to tournament. But tennis isn't the focus of this show, and that's kind of the problem. The more the cameras follow Venus and Serena pursuing their side passions, the less interested I became. With athletes this incredible, I think the real point of interest is to get insight into what makes them so great at what they do. Instead, the show lazes in their idle moments, which really aren't that amusing, like the sisters taking a wild golf cart ride or Serena chastising her dog for eating her turkey dinner.

(Soundbite of "Venus & Serena: For Real")

Ms. SERENA WILLIAMS (Tennis Star): Why did you eat the turkey? When I find it, you're going to confess.

Unidentified Woman #1: She ate the whole thing. She had enough time.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, she hides it for later.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, no.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Where is it, Jackie? I know you didn't eat that whole turkey!

WALLENSTEIN: At least the show isn't outright propaganda for the sisters. We watch them face their fair share of adversity: Serena taking a nasty spill midmatch that causes an injury, and Venus as she loses in the finals at the very same tournament. Since the show spends more time on their diversions than the discipline that makes them champions, it's their struggles that finally bring out a hint of self-examination from Venus.

(Soundbite of "Venus & Serena: For Real")

Ms. VENUS WILLIAMS (Tennis Star): I'm really disappointed about losing today, and I know Serena's really upset about her injury. But sometimes being down brings you back to reality. For now we have to step back and focus on working even harder. The Williams sisters will bounce back; we always do.

WALLENSTEIN: At the very least, "Venus and Serena: For Real" is a welcome change of pace. Too often reality shows are a showcase for shamelessness or stupidity.; shock value beats being a Good Samaritan every time. But much as I'd like to say the accomplishments of the Williams sisters makes them interesting people, that just wouldn't be true.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor with the Hollywood Reporter and critic for DAY TO DAY. The show "Venus & Serena: For Real" begins tonight on the ABC Family cable channel.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.
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