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Posted at 4:53 a.m. EST Wednesday, January 26, 2000

'ALEX MACK' ONE OF MOST CHARMING YOUTH TV SERIES

ITS SECRET IS THAT STAR ACTS LIKE NORMAL TEEN DATE: Tuesday, June 4, 1996

BY CARYN JAMES
New York Times

Alex Mack is a 14-year-old girl who can morph into a puddle of water, send bright yellow electrical charges across a room and levitate cookies behind her father's back.

But the essential Alex qualities are more evident when she says to her mother, `I cannot believe you embarrassed me like that!` Alex had been walking down the street with Scott, a boy she has a crush on, when her mother drove up and humiliated her by ordering her to do the grocery shopping. Some things about adolescence never change, even if you're telekinetic.

The Secret World of Alex Mack is one of the most charming, least cloying series on television. To anyone who hasn't been around teen-age children lately, the series' existence may sound like news from a parallel universe.

But in its own world, on cable's hugely popular Nickelodeon, Alex Mack is a megahit, and Larisa Oleynik, who plays her, is a mega-star. (The series, in repeats, is on Saturdays at 8 p.m. In the fall, as a sign of success, it will be on twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.)

The series works so well because the heroine with superpowers is endearingly ordinary. As she worries about her first midterm or wonders if Scott will ever ask her out, she is more believable than comparable young heroes who don't have magic on their side.

The secret of Alex Mack, obvious even to adults, is that her special powers suggest the way every ordinary child also is extraordinary and triumphant.

Alex's powers also are great fun. `I was just another average kid until my first day of junior high,` Alex explains in the introduction to each episode. A truck from the Paradise Valley Chemical Plant spilled a mysterious, experimental chemical on her.

Suddenly she could morph, and villains from the plant were on her trail, determined to find the unknown, chemically enhanced child. `Guess I'm not so average anymore,` Alex says.

Starting from this fantastic premise, the series includes all the elements that make young viewers feel at home. With her backward baseball cap and scrubbed face, Alex is not a sophisticated 14. Her older sister, Annie, is famous for her brains and gets all the grown-ups' attention. `My sister thinks I'm a science project,` Alex says in the wry voice that Oleynik makes so natural.

Alex's best friend, Ray, represents a shrewd choice on the part of the series' creators, too. His presence shows that girls and boys can be friends, and because he's black, it shows that blacks and whites can be friends. And Ray makes it acceptable for boys to watch Alex.

Only Annie and Ray know Alex's secret. Alex's parents are nice and easy to outsmart. One of the great delights of childhood is putting things over on your parents. Alex Mack gives young viewers that vicarious thrill in a big way.

Alex Mack is the obvious successor to the extremely popular Clarissa Explains It All (still on Nickelodeon in reruns) and the Baby Sitters Club books, movie and television series (in reruns on cable's Disney Channel).

But Clarissa really was a know-it-all, turning to the camera and lecturing. And every incarnation of The Baby Sitters Club combined bits of realism with stilted, let's-do-the-right-thing dialogue. At times, both strained to be credible.

Alex is not the only series to give girls magical powers. This fall Clarissa herself, Melissa Joan Hart, will star in a new ABC series, Sabrina: The Teen-Age Witch, based on her recent Showtime movie.

And of course the television godmother of all good witches is Samantha on Bewitched. But even when Samantha was trying to act like a normal human, the series was primarily about magic. Alex's powers are a backdrop, and they're not even supernatural. There's a scientific explanation; her big sister just hasn't figured it out yet.

Nickelodeon has what might be considered a male counterpart to Alex Mack in The Adventures of Pete and Pete (Sunday at 6:30 p.m.). But that series has an oddly surreal edge that begins with its premise: it is about two brothers, both named Pete. It's grossly funny, but realism is nowhere in sight.

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