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SBD/Issue 232/Sports Media
ESPN's Edgy "Playmakers" Gets Mixed Reviews, Debuts Tonight
Published August 26, 2003
ESPN debuts its original "Playmakers" series tonight at 9:00pm ET, a show about a fictional pro football team. The first of 11 episodes will be shown commercial-free and run for 48 minutes. The pilot episode presents issues such as drug abuse, marital infidelity, a player dealing with paralyzing an opponent, a veteran running back being replaced by a younger player, a coach pressuring the team doctor to allow an injured player to suit up and the coach refusing to deal with his own health problem after blood is found in his urine (THE DAILY). "Playmakers" creator John Eisendrath, on the show's allure: "What is it we don't see when we read the sports pages and box scores? What about the fears that the career will end, the money train will end, their bodies will be destroyed or they'll destroy others because of the violence of the game?" (USA TODAY, 8/26).
REVIEWS: An array of national media have offered their opinions. Following is a sample of these reviews:
Can "Playmakers" Compete In
Quality Field Of Dramas?
BASIC CABLE: In N.Y., Alessandra Stanley writes, "It is hard to imagine that regular ESPN viewers will want to watch a show that is so suited in tone and temperament to watchers of TNT or the Lifetime channel. It is equally hard to believe that viewers who love 'E.R.' or 'The Practice,' will pick a football melodrama over other equally well-executed new shows this fall" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26). But in Baltimore, David Zurawik writes, "The skillfully crafted pilot goes for the edge and finds it often enough to make Playmakers one of cable's most promising ensemble dramas since FX's The Shield" (Baltimore SUN, 8/26). In N.Y., David Bianculli called the show "another victory for basic cable." Bianculli: "The series should satisfy even its toughest audience, the pros who turn to ESPN to see highlights and features of themselves" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 8/25). Also in N.Y., Adam Buckman writes, "ESPN's very-convincing 'Playmakers' revives my hope that TV can make a sports drama and make it stick." The show's best feature is its "unwillingness to shy away from the problems that plague professional sports" (N.Y. POST, 8/26).
FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY: SI's Richard Deitsch wrote, "A show featuring nudity, salty language and graphic drug use is a bold move for ESPN. But its realistic depiction of the seamy side of the game makes it look like a smart idea" (SI, 8/11 issue). In Charlotte, Langston Wertz called the show "awfully dark and full of language you're probably used to hearing in R-rated movies. ... [But] it's hard to take your eyes off of it" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 8/24). In Ft. Worth, Richie Whitt: "It's uncomfortable. It's raw. It's violent. It's racy. It's realistic. And, unless you have a weak stomach or strong morals, it's entertaining" (FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, 8/22). In Orlando, Jerry Greene: "A good-looking and believable cast of men. ... Early scenes of partial nudity by females, always a plus" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 8/17). ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY's Bruce Fretts: "Essentially a soap opera — and a powerfully addictive one" (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, 8/22 issue). In N.Y., Phil Mushnick: "The show might have been a creative success if it were not laced with vulgar language and nudity, but this is cable, so you don't risk it. You load up on the low stuff because you can, because it can attract an audience that favors the visceral over the genuinely artistic" (N.Y. POST, 8/24). In Richmond, Jerry Lindquist, on the show's attempt to appeal to younger fans: "How to accomplish this? By succumbing to the lowest common denominator via profanity and nudity" (RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, 8/25). In San Diego, Jay Posner: "I wouldn't discourage anyone (except kids) from sampling these playmakers" (SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE, 8/22).
Some Say The Show Plays To Public's
Growing Cynicism Of Pro Athletes
SEEN THIS ALL BEFORE? In Chicago, Phil Rosenthal wrote the show is as "subtle as a chop block and as bereft of surprises" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 8/25). In Miami, Barry Jackson: "Appears to recycle tired themes, such as athletes being busted for drugs. We see this enough in real life — why include it in a fictional TV show?" (MIAMI HERALD, 8/22). USA TODAY's Michael Hiestand: "The first episodes are so cliche they border on parody" (USA TODAY, 8/17). MULTICHANNEL NEWS' Melanie Clarke: "Familiar storylines have been modernized with shiny cars and silk suits, but the network shouldn't count on car-thumping beats to bring ratings" (MULTICHANNEL NEWS, 8/25 issue). In Philadelphia, Ron Reid: "None of the characters is worth rooting for, and the conflicts are so exaggerated that they get tiresome in a hurry" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 8/22).
GENDER BENDER: The N.Y. TIMES' Stanley notes a dearth of female characters and writes, "The overall sensibility of 'Playmakers' is feminine, but the story line is oddly free of feminist influence. The first two episodes, at least, have no interesting parts for women, only sports-world stereotypes" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26). Westchester JOURNAL NEWS' Jane McManus: "A few flaws should be addressed in later episodes; namely, the lack of a compelling female character. (Note to the writers — pole dancing doesn't constitute character development)" (Westchester JOURNAL NEWS, 8/22).
THE HARSH REALITY: In L.A., Mike Penner: "The bleakness is unrelenting in 'Playmakers.' This is one grim fairy tale. There's very little joy in this football soap opera" (L.A. TIMES, 8/26). USA TODAY's Robert Bianco writes the show "is playing to the audience's growing cynicism about professional athletes." Bianco: "It's a great setting for a series. Too bad 'Playmakers' undercuts it with a heavy-handed and often pretentious script and with pedestrian performances" (USA TODAY, 8/26). In N.Y., Richard Sandomir: "'Playmakers' will not necessarily glorify football, as the NFL might prefer" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/24). In Atlanta, Mike Tierney: "The show's on-field collisions look bone-rattlingly authentic, thanks largely to ex-players who serve as consultants" (ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 8/26). The N.Y. TIMES' Stanley adds, "It bores in on hairline emotional injuries and jagged personality conflicts: jealousy between players, the loneliness and humiliation of being benched, the lure of cocaine, the temptation of steroids and the fear of injury. ... Naturally, it is great fun to watch" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26).
WELL-ACTED: In DC, Tom Shales: "If pro football bores you, are you likely to find anything intriguing in 'Playmakers?' Surprisingly, yes. It's well enough acted and written to sustain interest as a story of professional people under almost preposterous pressure"
(WASHINGTON POST, 8/26). Also in DC, Matt Bonesteel: "While there certainly won't be any Emmy acting nominations, the thespians themselves ... aren't bad" (WASHINGTON POST, 8/25). In Cleveland, Mark Dawidziak: "The cast is terrific, even when the dialogue gets as thin as the air" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 8/26). In Boston, Bill Griffith credits the acting of Omar Gooding, who "superbly played" Demetrius Harris, but writes, "It's hard to believe there's so little joy in athletes' lives" (BOSTON GLOBE, 8/26). In Pittsburgh, Chuck Finder: "The music is rad, the photography is cool (think NYPD Black and Blue) and the acting off the field is excellent" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 8/25).
QUICK TAKES: In Cleveland, Roger Brown: "'Playmakers' does have a moment or two, and it isn't a total waste of TV time" (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 8/25). In New Orleans, Pierce Huff: "The early grade ... is 'C+.' It's a decent show, but I wouldn't plan my nights around it. ... It's weird the way the series picks up in the middle of the season" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 8/24). In S.F., Steve Kroner: "Neither groundbreakingly good nor a totally lost hour. ... Acting: Solid, ... Story lines: Cliche. ... Believability: Varies" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 8/22). In CA, Michael Lev: "If nothing else, 'Playmakers' entertains. It is snappy and energetic" (ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER, 8/21). But the FINANCIAL TIMES' Ned Martel wondered, "Who talks like this, or thinks like this, or whatever this is supposed to be? The partial answer is most likely a Caucasian writer, straining to think African-American thoughts" (FINANCIAL TIMES, 8/23).