Page 2 columnist
I'm not sure what's happening with ESPN, but I think it's a good thing. In the first scene of "Playmakers", an ambitious football drama premiering Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- right after "The World Series of Poker, Day 742" -- we hear a paralyzed wide receiver grumble, "I can't even feel my (expletive)."
That's right, (expletive).I waited for Vitale to enter the hospital room. And I waited. And I waited. Eventually it dawned on me that somebody just said (expletive) on ESPN. Looking back, it was a watershed moment for the Worldwide Leader, right up there with Jeff Brantley unleashing his retro-Larry Legend mullet-perm to an ecstatic "Baseball Tonight" audience for the first time. Anyway, (expletive) set the tone for the rest of the pilot: Semi-naked groupies, guys smoking crack, and more swear words like (bleep) and (expletive deleted), none of which I'm allowed to use in this column. You figure it out. While watching everything unfold, I kept imagining my buddy Gus' 70-year-old father searching for a Giants score, clicking on (what he thought was) "Baseball Tonight," then being helped out of the room five minutes later. We've come a long way from the days of Sal Marciano and Lou Palmer, folks. As it turns out, "Playmakers" is an intense, fairly exhausting show, like if someone took "Oz," watered it down, removed the gang rapes and threw football helmets on everybody. Much like "Oz," you need to suspend your "Believability Radar" for an hour and enjoy the ride; if you're saying to yourself, "Wait a second, there's no way a running back could smoke crack 90 minutes before a game and still play," then this probably isn't the show for you. Before we delve any further, you should know three things:
1. I watched the first two episodes of "Playmakers" -- the finished pilot and a rough cut of the second episode -- and it kept my interest the entire time. If you like football and you like different types of TV shows, it's worth sitting through the pilot -- if only because it's a unique show, and because there hasn't been a truly memorable sports-related show since "The White Shadow" (as I described in detail two years ago).2. With that said, I didn't like "Playmakers" all that much, for the same reason that I stopped watching "Oz" right after Adebici died (for God's sake, couldn't they have spun him off into his own sitcom?) and inmates started getting killed in every way imaginable. "Playmakers" never seems totally believable; it's like a distorted, over-the-top version of the NFL. For instance, Episode No. 2 revolves entirely around painkillers, crack, steroids, and players beating drug tests by injecting clean urine into their (expletives) with a catheter. Apparently strippers, lap dances, date rape and abortions are scheduled for Episode No. 3. 3. And with THAT said, there's a 95 percent chance that I will end up TiVO-ing Episode No. 3 to see what happens. So there you go. As far as endorsements go, that's about as lukewarm as you can get. My buddy Sal watched the first two shows and thought they were "compelling and intense ... maybe too intense ... sort of reminds me of 'Oz' in that you might need a break from watching it three weeks in." I liked that analogy. It's the same reason I avoid "The Wire," a terrific show that always leaves me drained and unhappy after it's over. Whether that happens with me and "Playmakers" remains to be seen. There were a number of things I liked here. For one thing, creator John Eisendrath did the right thing by concentrating on the pregame/postgame stuff; for a show like this, you don't need game scenes that would cost too much money and seem comically staged, anyway. I liked the rhythm of the show, the way things moved from scene to scene, the theme music, even the running clock that was ripped right from "24." And the characters were sketched out distinctly enough that you could tell them apart (even during the pilot, when it's always difficult to tell who's who).
Four major plots emerge in the pilot episode (airing Tuesday night, as you probably know from the thousands of commercials on ESPN this week).
Hey, I know you have screws in your head, and you can't move, and there aren't any TVs on the ceiling, but you would die laughing at the deleted scenes in "Old School" if you could see them.
So there you go. There's actually a good foundation here for a weekly drama; just for DH alone, it's worth watching. And because it's a football setting, they can always fire the coach, waive the QB and trade the bald linebacker, then bring in some characters and actors that resonate with the audience like DH does.Down the road, I'm hoping for less clichés (groaners like "This league's like life -- when you're a playmaker, the rules don't apply") and narration that doesn't sound just like the guy from the Gatorade commercial. I'm hoping they concentrate on the riff-raff that surrounds the teams, like DH's posse and the slutty TV reporter who had an affair with the aging running back. And I'm desperately hoping they bleep out f-bombs instead of having the coach say things like "This is the biggest damn game of the damn year!" (an actual quote from the pilot). And that leads to a bigger point, one which will probably determine whether "Playmakers" succeeds or not. I'm not sure you can "push the envelope" on basic cable these days, not when HBO and Showtime are crossing every line imaginable. Shows like "Playmakers" inevitably end up in creative limbo -- just different enough from network TV that it's appealing, but restricted from heeding the great Bruce Dickinson's advice and really exploring the proverbial studio space.
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