The adage that “Casting is half the battle” originated long before the current wave of so-called reality TV, yet few formats illustrate that old saw more succinctly. Amid the glut of tedious celebrity vehicles bouncing around on flat tires, along comes this effervescent look at tennis’ Williams sisters, who charm the camera with the same intensity they bring to smashing forehand volleys. Even the fact that the two are no longer quite wreaking havoc on the courts works to the show’s advantage, exhibiting a humanizing, more vulnerable side of Venus in the opening sets.
Although this series might have landed on any number of networks, one named “Family” seems appropriate given the close bond between the sisters as well as their coach-father, Richard, who is perceived alternately as a tyrant and a loose cannon in tennis circles.
Here, however, he’s all sweetness, and the show heightens the familial bonds by introducing other sisters, among them the motherly Isha, who consoles Venus after she loses a match.
Yet what really makes “For Real” light up, not surprisingly, is the gregarious Serena, whose aversion to exercise and vain attempts to discipline her slightly daft dog provide an element of comedy to go with the family ties and tennis.
“I don’t take training as seriously as Venus, ’cause I just don’t like to work out,” says Serena, whose infectious laugh is one of the program’s major assets.
As with most celebrity verite, the show doubles as a commercial for all things Williams, from Serena’s fashion line (Aneres, her name spelled backwards) to their on-court exploits.
Nevertheless, two distinct personalities shine through. The more inward Venus grumbles about an early start time because TV wants to carry her match and concedes how much she dislikes those obligatory media chat sessions. Meanwhile, Serena splashes around for a photo shoot, talking about her desire to model and act when not dominating opponents.
Both whisper like excited schoolgirls upon seeing “that guy from ‘The Fresh Prince’ ” (James Avery, who played Mr. Banks) at an awards show, reminding us these two very public figures are only in their 20s.
What emerges is a portrait of two remarkably successful young women as well as their intricate support system, beginning with the genuine affection they harbor for each other. And if they’re not collecting tournament trophies and facing off against each other in finals as frequently as they once did, somehow “Venus and Serena” manages to make everyone involved look like a winner.
Besides, it’s probably best the show isn’t preoccupied with the top echelons of women’s tennis. Pronouncing those Russian names can be a bitch.