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TV REVIEWS: Woe-is-me reality TV gets a Shaq attack

As a diehard Minnesota sports fan, I've never had much room in my heart for Shaquille O'Neal - until now.

A new ABC show starting Tuesday, "Shaq's Big Challenge," which puts the spotlight on childhood obesity, is downright noble, a word rarely associated with celebrity reality series, unless you consider a B-lister's image issues to be a charitable cause.

Consider Bravo's "Hey, Paula," Paula Abdul's never-ending pity party at which she cries when she wants to. In next week's opening episode, the "American Idol" head cheerleader says she is allowing cameras to document her personal life to prove she's "just an everyday girl" and "just like everyone else."

Yeah, Abdul's assistants, housekeeper, publicist and wardrobe consultant remind me a lot of my own entourage, except hers actually exists.

In the first half hour, Abdul wants us to know that her schedule, even when "Idol" is not shooting, is inhuman. In one torturous 48-hour period, she has to walk the red carpet at the Grammys and hawk jewelry on QVC. In between, she somehow finds time to play with her dogs and berate her staff for not providing her favorite sweatpants for a plane trip.

If Abdul truly believes these antics will bring us closer to her, she is the William Hung of tact.

TV Land's "Back to the Grind," making its debut next month, is another desperate attempt to make us sympathize with the sorta-rich and semi-famous. Washed-up celebrities are assigned the "hazardous" duties of roles they created, which means poor "WKRP" star Loni Anderson is forced to schlep coffee and work the switchboard at a radio station and Erik Estrada suits up as a California Highway Patrol officer. By my count, this is Estrada's fourth tour of duty in reality TV, which automatically earns him a spot in the Has-Been Hall of Fame. Watching Estrada suck in his gut once is punishment enough.

Mark Philippoussis is not really a celebrity, except to the half-dozen of us who still follow men's tennis and know he's a grand-slam finalist, but he does a fine job of acting like a spoiled, self-centered personality in NBC's "Age of Love." The premise has the 30-year-old pro choosing between women in their 20s and in their 40s. Decisions, decisions!

All the contestants are gaga over him, even though he offers precious little charisma or even a free tennis lesson. He approaches this dating game with a dazed, frightened look, as if he'd just been aced by Pete Sampras.

It would suck to be him, unless you haven't been on a date in months and have problems getting the attention of gals of any age. But I digress.

This wave of woe-is-me TV makes O'Neal's effort all the more impressive. Instead of focusing on his own problems - where in the heck does a 7-foot-1 Goliath buy shoes? - he turns his attention to six youngsters, all of whom are morbidly overweight. If you think these kids would be inspired to shed pounds simply by being in the presence of a sports superstar, think again. Their struggle to skip pizza snacks and do more than three pushups in a row creates true emotional drama.

O'Neal seems genuinely concerned about the kids and the subject, nearly destroying a weight set when he learns his gang has been sleepwalking through workouts. When his campaign to require physical-education classes in schools comes up against budgetary reality, it creates a dilemma that's a lot meatier than whether or not a 46-year-old woman can still be a hottie.

O'Neal may only be pretending to care, but I've seen his movies. He's not that good.

Despite that, I'm inclined to show my appreciation for O'Neal's efforts by going back and rewatching his 1996 genie movie, "Kazaam."

Then I'll really have something to whine about.

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