King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"Playmakers," ESPN's first fictional series, is more soap opera than gritty drama, but it's a guilty pleasure.

Published August 26, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

You can tell from the commercials that "Playmakers," ESPN's new series about a fictional pro football team called the Cougars, is gritty. The quick cuts, the hyperactive camera, the hard glares between actors, the hip-hop soundtrack, they all scream: This is some gritty, two-fisted, smashmouth television, baby! Are you ready-I-said are! You!

Ready? (Quick cut to black screen.)

Whatever, as star running back Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding) likes to say with a shrug, usually before going off to do some blow. "Playmakers" is good old-fashioned melodrama, a soap opera with pads, a big domed stadium standing in for the big hospital. The characters are stock, the dialogue is overwrought, and the plot twists come hot and heavy. You have your drugs, your personality clashes, your infidelity, your career and medical crises.

And you know what? It's pretty fun.

If nothing else, it's nice to see a drama about sports and know you're not going to end up sitting through a scene where a father and son tearfully play catch as the violins crescendo. You might get a couple of linebackers having a bonding moment during a fivesome with some groupies, though. The 11-week series, ESPN's first foray into scripted serial television, debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.

As the pilot episode opens, hard-hitting linebacker Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) is at the hospital visiting a receiver he's paralyzed with a crunching tackle. He tries to be upbeat in that visiting a guy in the hospital kind of way, talking up the DVDs he's brought as a present. "I can't even feel my dick," the receiver says coldly, which is probably how I'd say it too. That's not going to help our linebacker friend's identity crisis. He doesn't like playing football, you see. Hates it, in fact. He's hated it since his father, the high school coach, literally ran his brother to death in summer practice. Now he plays angry.

How do I know this? Because he tells us, in the annoying second-person voice-over that all the characters use to convey their thoughts. "Both your parents were junkies," the star running back says. He doesn't say, "And now you're waking up in a beach resort hotel room with two gorgeous naked women," because, apparently, I'm not. It's so confusing, that second-person narrative, don't you think?

You think it's confusing.

I also know about Olczyk's problems because he tells them to his psychiatrist, in the "why didn't we think of this in the 1930s" expository device that has spread through Hollywood like kudzu.

In addition to Olczyk's story line, there's also Russell Hornsby as Leon Taylor, the good-guy star runner who blew out his knee last year and is trying to come back, though the cocky Harris has taken his job. Taylor is growing distant from his loving but pushy wife (Karen LeBlanc), who, like the digital on-screen clock that counts down to game time, seems to have been borrowed from "24." He's contemplating an affair with a TV reporter. Harris, meanwhile, is smoking crack minutes before the game, and the head coach (Tony Denison) is urinating blood and refusing to let the doctor treat him.

If a Cougars player doesn't come down with amnesia by playoff time, I'll eat my Luke and Laura Fan Club membership card.

The coach, by the way, is kind of a meanie-boots. He shows up his players in meetings, yells at them, talks down to them. He's worried about losing his job, so he rides them pretty hard, which is a bad idea because they're a sensitive bunch.

At game time, he says things like, "You are professionals. You show up, you do as you're told, you commit. It's not so damn hard." Uh, whatever. He never seems to be thinking about, oh, you know, football plays or strategy or things like that, and his team is a train wreck of an organization, with players who are constantly either fighting each other, quitting, threatening to fight each other or quit, or smoking crack. The single most unbelievable plot point in the whole series is that the Cougars are supposed to be on a two-game winning streak. Did they get to play the Bengals twice in a row?

Not that the Cougars would play the Bengals, you understand, because "Playmakers" is not about the NFL. Oh no, ESPN's press materials insist, this is a fictional football team, in a fictional league. It just happens to look a lot like the NFL, which makes this series an admirably gutsy move for ESPN, which makes a lot of money carrying NFL games. And the NFL is not known for its self-deprecating sense of humor.

ESPN should also get a round of applause for getting right two things that are just always, always, always wrong in movies and TV shows. One is TV news reports, which never look realistic. TV reporters never start on-screen interviews by saying, "I'm standing here with so-and-so," but every single TV reporter in this history of filmed fictional entertainment says that. It's not surprising that ESPN, which is after all in the business of producing packaged reports for TV, can produce a drama with a real-looking one. What's surprising is that it did produce one.

The other thing that never looks right is athletic action, which isn't surprising because actors aren't athletes. Omar Gooding is a handsome fellow with a nice, sculpted body, but he doesn't really look like a football player, much less an unstoppable running back. And no amount of slo-mo can hide the fact that an actor in a football suit juking through a defense doesn't look like Marshall Faulk doing it. Not even a little bit. The trick is to keep the game action to a minimum, and to get all artsy by doling it out in shots that last a millisecond. "Playmakers" does that. It's not really about football anyway, in the sense that "Dallas" really wasn't about ranching.

Verisimilitude isn't the show's strong point -- shouldn't the players in the postgame locker room be just a little sweaty? And where's the media? -- but it doesn't have to be. It's going to suck you in with melodramatic plot devices and the delicious feeling that you're getting a peek into the seamy underbelly of professional sports.

It's a silly, not very believable look. Harris has a 147-yard game after having smoked crack. That's hard to swallow. But it's over-the-rainbow fantastical for him to walk out of a crack house 15 minutes before kickoff and be in the locker room, in pads, seven minutes later, according to the countdown clock. Is there no traffic in Cougartown? Shoot, if the crack house were somehow inside the dome he wouldn't be able to pull off that trick.

In the second episode, which is primarily about legal and illegal drug use and abuse and contains, fair warning, a catheter scene, the placekicker frets about getting cut. "I have three kids," he says. The placekicker! Placekickers get cut more often than paper dolls. The average NFL kicker plays for 732 teams in his career, most of them twice. A kicker scared of getting cut is like a hooker scared of getting arrested. He's in the wrong line of work.

But again, whatever. It's easy to pick -- an entertaining drinking game could be organized around ponderous voice-over clichés like "Everybody who plays football gets hurt ... one way or another" -- but "Playmakers" looks like 11 weeks of guilty, I mean gritty, pleasure.

And I haven't even mentioned the best part: It's a football show on ESPN, and Chris Berman is nowhere in sight.

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