The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Much as MTV has moved away from showing actual music videos most of the time (I read recently that videos pull in the weakest ratings of anything they air), the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN for short, or "espen" if you're really down with the sound) seems intent on establishing programming options that are an alternative to its bread-and-butter of sporting events and news. Why? Because non-sports shows have higher upside potential: Better shot at catching a more universal audience, etc. So gameshows and reality fare, along with a healthy serving of movies, have been thrown against the wall up in Bristol, just to see if anything will stick. All are sports-related, or at least competition-related, in theme--for now.

The latest experiment is "Playmakers". It's basically an up-to-date version of North Dallas Forty (more so, I think, than Any Given Sunday), except it's padded to mini-series length. All the dirty dealing you suspect your sports heroes of--crack smoking, steroid-popping, infidelity, gratuitious violence, general sneakiness--is on display on a team that looks like an NFL club, plays like an NFL club, but please remember, is definitely not an officially-licensed NFL club. (Let's get that straight, before Disney/ESPN offends its broadcast partner.)

In any case, "Playmakers" has not gained many fans among the NFL players' community, because it's over-the-top storylines and portrayals are charged with being damagingly negative. Upshot: Don't even think of buying the boxed DVD edition of this series as a Christmas gift for Warren Sapp, baby.

It should be pointed out that, while the criticism from the players is valid, you have to remember: This is Hollywood. They're not going for an accurate portrayal--not even close to it. Wildly exaggerated, even absurd, situations are what draw viewers in and gets them talking. Shows about the medical and legal professions do the same thing, to the derision of those real-life professionals. While you could debate whether most viewers are smart enough to distinguish this exciting fantasy from not-quite-as-exciting reality, it's still naive to expect any better from the movie folks.

North Dallas Forty and (to a much lesser extent) Any Given Sunday drew the same gripes when they came out. The league was especially sensitive to North Dallas, and fought hard against it; it pulled its active participation in Any Given Sunday after getting a good look at that script. How it will react to this presentation by business partner Disney is debatable. I'm thinking if Tagliabue and Company had any real objections to it, they would have put up more of a fuss ahead of time.

I watched the first episode of "Playmakers"; mainly I was drawn in by the gimmicky inaugurual presentation that had no commercial breaks. I've since caught the last ten minutes of the third or fourth episode. Obviously, it didn't grab me. I don't think it's particularly well-made: The acting is at best adequate, at worst (like with the incumbent running back who's in danger of losing his job) laughably stiff; the pacing and narrative are pretty poor as well.

Do others agree with me? Is that why the ratings have dipped with each new episode? I'd like to think that, but I seriously doubt it. Rather, I think ESPN outfoxed itself by waiting until September to premiere it. I'm sure the thinking was that the start of football season means rabid fans will want as much football-related stuff they can get, even in fictional drama form. But I think the opposite happened: With the start of the real thing every Sunday, who needs to watch this fairy tale? I actually think that if they had run it during the summer, it would have done great. Hell, I'm so desperate for some real sports programming during the summer (I'm aware of snoozeball--I mean, baseball), I'd probably have eaten it up.