The Film, The Characters, and The Controversy
This is actually the third time I’ve written about the ESPN’s controversial, but critically acclaimed, dramatic series, “Playmakers.” At first, I offered both praise for the criticism for the drama centered round the fictitious Cougars football team. The show was remarkably compelling, told interesting stories, and secured great performances from the actors. However, as many other people did, I questioned the realism of this type of show as it portrayed players on one American professional football team to have a wide array of problems including addictions, depression, problems with physical violence against women, and the one homosexual man trying to keep himself in the closet. Considering all of these stories happened in real life and had come out about several players from different teams at different times, it didn’t seem plausible in the slightest that all of this could happen to one series of guys on one team at the same time.
At that time, I also questioned how ESPN could possibly pride itself as the authority of sports news, coverage and analysis and yet also air a scripted drama in a sports setting that just about everyone said isn’t even close to the reality of what it’s like in a team locker room. It could be argued that networks like CBS and NBC do this kind of thing all the time, but I would liken ESPN more to CNN and Fox News as their primary goal is to provide news, live events, and analysis to its viewers where as NBC and CBS provide a wide array of programs and separate their news from their entertainment. It’s much harder to achieve a difference between news and entertainment when the network initially focuses on news before beginning to air original programming. It could potentially damage credibility if a news program follows a show like “Playmakers” and very little distinction is made between the two.
The second time I wrote about “Playmakers,” I eased up considerably on my view of the show, instead focusing on the fact that the show was intriguing, engaging, and told great stories. Actually, part of what provoked me to write about it a second time was the fact that the show won an award from the American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 programs of 2003. The bottom line I felt was that as long as those who watched were willing to suspend disbelief and follow along with some intriguing storylines, then those that watched would be satisfied.
As I write this DVD review five months later, I’m still willing to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories being told rather than harping on ESPN, the “Playmakers” producers and actors for not putting together a necessarily 100% accurate portrayal of what happens in a football locker room. After all, Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article discussing the second season of the FX drama “Nip/Tuck” and the buzz is that while that show is also popular and engaging, plastic surgeons everywhere scoff at the portrayal of the Miami doctors played by Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh. It’s apparent John Eisendrath and co. weren’t trying to create a mirror image of what was happening with the Dallas Cowboys, but merely incorporate some elements of real football situations with the human drama that also exists.
Consider the main characters and the stories that centered around them in the eleven episode season of “Playmakers:”
**Leon Taylor (played by Russell Hornsby) The former star Running Back (RB) is 30-years-old and, as Creator/Executive Producer John Eisendrath said, “is going through a mid-life crisis.” In the pilot, he is given a rocking chair for his birthday at a team breakfast and all the fears about age, career mortality, and losing his starting RB position to a young up-and-comer, especially after tearing his ACL previously crop up. Realizing he was going to need a leg up, he started taking steroids in Episode 2 despite it being against everything he believed at athlete should do.
Taylor’s personal life also ends up in turmoil as what begins as frustration over the lack of his wife’s (played by Karen LeBlanc) support as he and the team sought a trade to another team turns into a highly publicized arrest for spousal battery before a dramatic end of the season event turns things topsy-turvy for the “over the hill” RB yet again.
**Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) The star Linebacker (LB) faces mortality himself, but that of another player he injured badly in a game, not his own. In the pilot, the first glimpse the audience gets of Olczyk is him in a hospital room looking down on the Quarterback (QB) he paralyzed with could be argued as a clean or dirty play. Nonetheless, he feels terrible and is in therapy where he realizes that he has all the pent up rage because his father essentially killed his brother when, as the high school football coach, ran the team ragged so much the boy suffered from heat stroke and died.
Eventually, Olczyk goes on anti-depressants and appears to be doing better after securing a new contract and meeting a nice girl named Jenna. However, he screws things up there as well by failing to communicate with her leading to a break up, and getting a girl he had a one night stand with pregnant. The end of the season for the stud LB ends with mixed results.
** Demetrius “DH” Harris (Omar Gooding) He is a high profile rookie RB, with high profile skills, and unfortunately a high profile craving for the good life whether that means girls, booze, or cocaine. Especially cocaine In the pilot, he barely shows up before the start of the game after getting high in a drug dealer’s bathroom. Amazingly, because of his skills, the owner forces the Head Coach to play the star RB. After passing a drug test using a complicated and painful procedure to have clean urine placed in his bladder, he’s later confronted by the owner and orders him into a harsh detox program that is supposed to erase the urge to ingest cocaine into his body. For the most part, it works, but in a mean twist, the star steals a sick boy’s morphine from a hospital. The boy catches on and orders DH out of his room and not to come back.
In addition to the drug problems, DH falls into what sports fans might call, the “Ray Lewis” trap as one of his boys murdered a patron that was starting with the RB at a club the night after he blew a game for the Cougars. Despite the fact that he knows he could face serious prison time himself, DH helps cover up the crime and say to the police that his friend that shot the bar patron was actually with him instead of in the alley where the crime happened. After a series of events involving DH’s brother “Big E.” (played by Snoop Dogg) and DH’s supposed friends, DH ends up having no choice but to set the record straight, especially after the innocent man that was charged with the murder received a life sentence in prison.
**Derek McConnell (Christopher Wiehl) The 26-year-old staring QB is facing is his own mortality sooner than he first expected as well. First, he develops an addiction to a pain killer that will eventually destroy his kidneys. Despite knowing this fact, he continues to take the drug so he can play and earn his paycheck.
Later in the season, his careless womanizing actions led him to impregnating an anonymous woman that he met out and slept with after a game. Once he becomes aware of the fact, he coldly blows her off allowing one of the team assistants to take her to an abortion clinic to terminate the pregnancy. It is only when the assistant calls out the starting QB when he realizes he might have to change his ways.
** Thad Guerwitcz (Dan Petronijevic) In a storyline that entered the forefront in the second half of the season, Guerwitcz, the All-Pro Wide Receiver (WR), vigorously attempted to hide the fact that he was gay and had a boyfriend, not only from the media, but everyone on the team as well who assumed he was having sex with as many girls as they were. The WR goes to such lengths that he finds a beautiful model, proposes to her, and begins planning the wedding until a series of events leave him out of the closet, and, potentially, out of a job.
**Kelvin “Buffalo” James (Marcello Thedford) This poor sap is a talented lineman, but he often gets mixed up and heads down the wrong path. He took the fall for DH in the pilot when they were late on game day, he provided the clean urine for DH so he could pass the drug test, and he knew all about DH covering up the murder DH’s friend committed.
In the second half of the season, “Buffalo” is diagnosed with diabetes and has to make the hard decision of losing weight to protect his health and stay at the contract mandated weight of 325 pounds to be an effective lineman. It could be argued that the decision he makes is surprising, but considering the destructive paths all of these players take, it’s not really a surprise after all.
**Coach George (Tony Denison) Not only is the Coach trying to deal with a potential losing season, an owner breathing down his neck threatening not to give a contract extension, and a series of nasty confrontations with players and their expectations, but midway through the season, he discovers that he has prostate cancer. Amazingly (or not so much in the results oriented professional football circuit), Coach George decides to get chemotherapy without taking a leave of absence from coaching.
So, it’s evident that there are many heavy, but potentially engaging, storylines unfolding on the show. Even better, the way they are written and acted, it’s easy to get into and worth following along despite the fact that all of these things taking place at the same time seems highly farfetched. In his recorded commentary, John Eisendrath talked at length about the fact that he wasn’t necessarily trying to create a “football” drama but rather a drama involving what can happen in the life of a group of men and the problems they can run into in their chosen profession. If critics (from the sports department especially) looked at the show from that point of view rather than a “football drama” that was unrealistic, it could have gone a long way in determining the success of the series.
Why did “Playmakers” get so much attention and generate so much controversy then? I think that premise is simple for two reasons: First, since plastic surgeons don’t have entire television and radio networks, magazines, newspapers, and large draw Internet sites that can address the controversy the same way the sports industry has dozens of thousands of people working in sports media nation wide. They are the ones that made it a controversy to begin with. Second, “Playmakers” was an ESPN show and the more the various radio show hosts, talking heads, and journalists talked about the show, the more likely the show would pick up steam as something worth checking out. The program received a boat load of free publicity that no other show in 2003 received. Unfortunately, despite the critical success, the National Football League didn’t want anything to do with a show that painted American professional football in that light. If ESPN wanted its contract renewed to show NFL games in the future, it was smart to cancel the show. However, what would have happened if this show ended up on FX (as was the original intention two years ago according to Eisendrath)? Since FX is affiliated with Fox, another NFL network, itmight be better to imagine if the show was on TNT instead. Taking into account the large audience for a basic cable show and the buzz surrounding it, it probably would have been picked up for a second season instead of reduced to a one season phenomenon that we now have to pick up on DVD to see again. Frankly, I’d be happy to see that because one season of “Playmakers” just wasn’t enough.
The episodes on these DVDs are presented in Widescreen (1.78:1). That’s an interesting technique to employ for a television show. I think it was a good move as it made each episode seem like a Hollywood movie (despite being filmed in Toronto) and gave the scenery a certain gritty realism that basic television normally doesn’t capture.
The episodes on these DVDs are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. The sound is crisp and solid and is a nice addition to the production.
In addition to the 11 episodes from full season of “Playmakers” Buena Vista Home Entertainment provided the following three special features:
** Pilot Episode Audio Commentary from Creator/Executive Producer John Eisendrath Eisendrath, also a producer on the successful ABC show “Alias,” contributed some meaningful content to the audio commentary he recorded for the pilot episode. First, he spoke that the show was originally written for the Fox cable network, FX, two years ago. However, the network decided to take a pass on the show and it went back into Eisendrath’s drawer for two years until his agent alerted ESPN of the script and became interested in the project.
Eisendrath spoke at length about the point of “Playmakers” and that it was meant to be about a series of men and their lives that happened to be in the world of professional football rather than a football drama. He understood that the show was generating a great deal of controversy, but it appears that he felt people that fed into the argument unfairly and they didn’t realize that the show was about the men and not a football team.
The Creator/Executive Producer also talked extensively about Jason Matthew Smith and the fact that he went through a remarkable transformation in just a few weeks time so he could more accurately play the role of Eric Olczyk. The actor shaved his head and, thanks to increased calorie intake and intense workouts with his brother, put on over 20 pounds of muscle in right around a month during the audition process to appear more believable for that role. It was clear Eisendrath was very impressed by the physical transformation Smith underwent.
In addition, the “Alias” producer spoke about the grueling production schedule and how the pilot was filmed in about half the time it usually is because it didn’t really act as a pilot being shown to executives, but the first episode of the series. Also, because Eisendrath was writing both for “Alias” and “Playmakers” at the same time, he was writing scenes the night before the production staff and actors had to film scenes. He complimented everyone’s professionalism and their ability to work very hard to bring everything together considering the tight timeline to deliver good scenes.
**“Playmakers” Behind-the-Scenes documentary Unfortunately, this is another example of a behind-the-scenes feature on a DVD (set) being very disappointing as it lasted only 12 minutes long and only featured some comments from Eisendrath, fellow Exectutive Producer, Orly Adelson and several of the stars briefly. It didn’t follow much of a format and merely profiled several of the key players briefly. I certainly expected more from this feature.
**“On Set with Snoop Dogg” At less than five minutes long, it’s blatant that this feature was thrown together very hastily and just so Buena Vista could put Snoop Dogg’s name on the DVD case as being associated with the DVD production. He speaks briefly in a studio in a serious manner about how he wanted to be part of the show and that he actively sought out the decision makers to make sure he was cast. He also spoke briefly about being an actor and how it differs from being in the studio rapping. Besides this and a few clips, the feature offers nothing else of substance.
Considering how much ESPN is hyping the release of the “Playmakers” DVD set, it might be assumed the producers would work to add in more than just a few sub par extras. Unfortunately, it appears that they are, for the most part, allowing the 11-episode season to stand on its own as a reason to purchase the set.
Thankfully, it delivers.
* * * * * *
The Film: 8.5
The Characters: 9.0
The Controversy: 5.0
The Video: 8.5
The Audio: 8.5
The Extras: 5.0