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SLYLY SUBVERSIVE, ESPN GRIDIRON DRAMA WORTH A LOOK.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

ESPN has perfected ``SportsCenter'' - its bread and butter, its meat and potatoes, its Dodger dog and cold beer - amazingly well: Primo, pithy highlight reels of the day's games accompanied by a smidgen of insight and a dollop of drollery.

What one doesn't expect from ESPN is a sentimental melodrama, high- testosterone soap-opera. Yet that's essentially what its first scripted dramatic series, ``Playmakers,'' offers, along with a slightly subversive little tweak: Its thesis, week in and week out, is that if fans knew what was going on in the locker room, they wouldn't be cheering their heroes nearly as loudly.

In fact, they'd probably skulk away, thoroughly disgusted, and take up, oh, say, reading contemporary literary fiction. Yep: According to ``Playmakers,'' today's pro sports scene is that appalling.

``Playmakers'' concerns the sundry members of a pro football team - the head coach (Tony Denison) who will do anything to preserve his job, the aging veteran (Russell Hornsby) hoping to rally for one last hurrah and the too-cocky rookie (Omar Gooding) for whom everything - from women to avoiding repercussions for bad behavior - comes too easily.

Oh - and then there's the guy who, due to the casting limitations of weekly TV drama, has to essay too many different sports archetypes: the soulful fellow who would have enough issues to deal with simply given his insane father/coach killed his brother via heatstroke but he also has to cope with the guilt rising from his paralyzing an opponent with a cheap hit (Jason Matthew Smith) - whew!

Episodes of ``Playmakers'' seem defined not so much by story lines as by their themes: Tonight's premiere offers the generic ``There's more to the game than the final score'' rubric, as sundry psycho-dramas play themselves out before the team takes the field. Next week examines drug testing, as the show endeavors to explain how players justify the painkillers they take and the torturous ways they circumnavigate urine tests (at one grisly point, you might think you've wandered into an episode of ``Nip/Tuck'').

Perhaps most impressive for a show of this nature, the cast members are equally convincing playing their characters both in jock mode and in their more conflicted off-field personae. One may forgive the fact that ``Playmakers'' goes to extreme lengths to make every aspect of an athlete's life seem vaguely apocalyptic - the average life expectancy of a pro-footballer is 20 years less than an average American's, the second episode ominously informs us. One may also ignore the fact that the show's target audience can be difficult to divine (gay guys or straight guys? There are equal amounts of beef cake and cheese cake in each episode).

What's interesting, ultimately, is that ESPN is actually trying to defuse its viewers' relentless hero worship. What's more interesting is, were this show to be successful, the network's ratings on other evenings would plummet.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

PLAYMAKERS - Three stars

What: Testosterone-driven soap opera exploring the ugly side of professional football.

Where: ESPN.

When: 6, 7 and 9 tonight.

In a nutshell: Somewhat predictable and pedantic, but fairly subversive material given the outlet.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Jason Matthew Smith, left, plays a guilt-ridden pro football player coached by Tony Denison in ESPN's ``Playmakers.''
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 26, 2003
Words:545
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