On Monday in this space, we discussed the failures of NBC’s new sitcom “Inside Schwartz,” explained the “Curse of Coolidge” and wondered why it’s easier to create a 35-inch television from scratch than it is to create an entertaining TV show that relates to sports.
But maybe the question isn’t “Why?” but “How?” In other words, how can the TV industry make this work?
First, a quick recap: Over the past two decades, Hollywood churned out quality dramas about police departments (“NYPD Blue,” “Miami Vice,” “Homicide,” “Hill Street Blues”), law offices (“L.A. Law,” “The Practice”), courts (“Law & Order”), hospitals (“ER,” “Chicago Hope,” “St. Elsewhere”), newspapers (“Lou Grant”), government (“The West Wing”), prisons (“Oz”), forensic science (“CSI”) … and those are just the shows I remember off the top of my head. Yet there wasn’t one quality sports show over this time? How was this possible?
One of my editors (J-Lov, no relation to J-Lo) sent me the following explanation:
“To me, the problem with making sports TV that works has to do with the difference between sports drama and emotional drama, and our expectations for each. Sports drama is unscripted, and that’s what we like about it. Emotional drama is tightly controlled — good emotional drama, that is — while seeming completely natural (at the same time). There is no rational reason why the two don’t work together — other than the subliminal differences in our expectations — but they just don’t.”
Interesting answer. And it almost roped me in, except for one thing: it doesn’t explain why we love sports movies so much.
Why will I watch the last 15 minutes of “The Natural” twice in the same week on Cinemax 2 when I’ve already seen the movie roughly 255,034 times and I already own it on DVD? How does that make sense? Clearly there’s another dynamic going on here. Maybe we enjoy sports movies because we can control the endings. Maybe the heroics of Hickory High, the New York Knights, the Mean Machine and everyone else seem safer than the constant pitfalls and disappointments of the real-life sports scene; even if we already know the endings, at least they’re good endings, right?
I would argue that we’re ready for another well-done TV show that happens to be about sports … it just hasn’t happened yet. Why not? Because it’s easier to make a sports movies work; they rely on dramatic arcs (a conflict that gets resolved within two hours), whereas TV shows have smaller arcs and tend to be more character-driven. And it’s obviously difficult to create characters that can remain interesting over the long haul, regardless of the genre.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For instance, “The White Shadow” was revered during its all-too-brief, Koufax-esque run in the late-70’s. (If you don’t believe me, ESPN Classic re-runs “Shadow” at 10 o’clock every morning and the episodes from the first two seasons still hold up; tragically, some of the best episodes are MIA because the original tapes are missing, which damn near kills me, but that’s a story for another time.) “Shadow” was a groundbreaking television show with memorable characters … it just happened to be about a high school basketball team. And that’s the key here.
Here’s the list of sports-related shows that Hollywood cranked out since “Shadow” was cancelled in 1981. And trust me, if I’m inadvertently leaving something out here, it’s probably for a good reason.
1. “Bay City Blues” (1983)
Intriguing project from Stephen Bochco (who created “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and the legendary “Cop Rock”) about the travails of a minor-league baseball team … future “NYPD Blue” star Dennis Franz played the manager … future “Flashdance” star (and That Guy) Michael Nouri played the star player … according to www.imdb.com, Sharon Stone was a supporting player … Bochco was scorching-hot at that point because of “Hill Street Blues,” yet “Bay City” lasted just four episodes … your guess is as good as mine.
2. “1st & Ten” (1984-1991)
HBO’s first comedy, which starred a slender, sultry Delta Burke as the owner of the California Bulls (a fictional L.A. football team) … thoroughly forgettable, totally inane, and yet it lasted an astounding seven seasons … every teenager from the mid-’80s holds a soft spot for this show (because of HBO’s mandate that every episode had to feature an obligatory nude scene) … they used USFL game footage for every episode … the cast included Shannon Tweed, Marcus Allen, Ogre from “Revenge of the Nerds” and O.J. Simpson (sending the Unintentional Comedy Ratiing through the roof if HBO ever wises up and starts re-running the show) … you know, even though “1st & Ten” ended up getting cancelled, it was only because O.J. loved it too much.
3. “Coach” (1989-1997)
Lightweight sitcom starring Craig T. Nelson as a college football coach in Minnesota … the most successful sports-related show of all-time (lasting an astounding eight seasons) … I never thought this show brought anything to the table, but it didn’t take anything off the table, either … put it this way: People aren’t exactly trading videotapes of “Coach” on eBay.
(Note: I still haven’t forgiven Nelson for not having Rifleman take a safety at the end of the big game in “All The Right Moves.” Inexcusable. He never should have gotten his own TV show after that.)
4. “Hang Time” (1995-2000)
“Saved By the Bell” crossed with high school hoops. I don’t even have a joke here.
5. “Arli$$” (1996-)
6. “Sports Night” (1998-2000)
Dramedy about a “SportsCenter”-type show from Aaron Sorkin … critically acclaimed, rarely watched … Comedy Channel bought the re-runs and promoted them endlessly (nobody’s watching them, either) … strange show: It was sports-oriented enough that it probably turned off most non-sports fans, yet it wasn’t sports-oriented enough and/or realistic enough for most diehard sports fans … the kid from “Dead Poets Society” always seemed overmatched as one of the Dan Patrick-types (you kept waiting for him to start stalking a boarding school student and recite poetry) … one mitigating factor: A small population of fans out there absolutely loved this show (I just don’t know any of them).
7. “The Hoop Life” (1999)
Showtime’s ill-fated vehicle about a pro hoops team … Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from “Forrest Gump”) played the star and Dan Lauria (Kevin’s Dad from the “Wonder Years”) played the coach … you kept waiting for Mykelti to drop his lower lip and start talking about shrimp … exhibited a hint of potential for the first few episodes … hampered by poor casting, an obviously meager budget and no NBA affiliation (they were forced to rely on the “darkened arena/constant close-ups/slow motion/quick edits” routine, always a disaster).
8. “Inside Schwartz” (2001-)
Ugh, Part Two.
And that’s it. That’s the list.
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There’s one simple way to approach the “What would make a good sports-related TV show?” question: What if we examined specific sports movies that worked over the past 10-15 years, then imagined that Sports Movie X had instead been transformed into a TV series? With savvy casting, a workable budget and the proper creative forces behind the scenes, would the idea have worked on television?
Three mitigating factors before we begin:
Anyway, here are nine recognizable sports movies from the past two decades … let’s determine if they would have worked as TV shows:
Guy comes to a small Indiana town … he’s in his mid-50s, and he mixes with the townfolk like oil and water … during the first few episodes, he’s making enemies and trying to stamp his imprint on his team … but the town’s turning against him … and he can’t convince his star player to play … and you know he’s headed for a disaster … and yet the guys are slowly responding to him …
I mean, you’re telling me this wouldn’t have worked as a TV show? Can you imagine Jimmy Chitwood’s emotional comeback during November Sweeps? Pass the goosebumps, please. Frankly, I’m waiting for somebody in Hollywood with the scrotal circumference to modernize “Hoosiers” — maybe Norman Dale comes to Indiana, but it’s 2001, not 1952. You’re telling me you wouldn’t watch the pilot? We would either love that show or despise that show. No middle ground.
One more thing, and I firmly believe this: As wonderful as “Hoosiers” was, it might have unfolded even better as a 13-episode TV show. A story that good? One of the rare cases that “more” could have been better than “less” — every plot would have received extended attention (Coach Dale and his girlfriend, Jimmy’s reluctance to play, the evil wanna-be coach staging a coup de-etat, Shooter’s drinking and so on).
Also, because you’re dealing with high school hoops, you could easily film the game scenes and keep the budget in check. And it could still work for TV if they re-made the show and cast the right person as Coach Dale.
2. “Jerry Maguire”
On paper, it definitely could have worked — the whole “team vs. agent” thing, the relationship with Jerry and his new family, tons of cameos, outlandish player-related plots and the chance to have Rod Tidwell (one of the all-time memorable sports movie characters) on the small screen.
Still, the fact remains that, after “The Debacle That Was and Is Arli$$,” there will never see another TV show revolving around a sports agent in this lifetime. We have a better chance of seeing Hollywood produce a wacky spinoff about the child molester from “Happiness” called “Can I Make You A Tuna Fish Sandwich?”
3. “Blue Chips”
Imagine a Bobby Knight-type coach bending the rules, dealing with boosters, throwing tirades, handling NCAA-style problems (gambling probes, allegations of illegal recruiting, boosters trying to oust him) and playing babysitter for a bunch of prima donnas. Imagine his players dealing with sleazy agents, conniving females, scumbag family members and jealous teammates. It would be like “The White Shadow” on Ephedrine, wouldn’t it?
What a phenomenal premise. Throw in high-quality game sequences and it’s a show any self-respecting sports fan would watch religiously.
Only one problem …
You couldn’t pull off the game sequences.
There’s no way you could film a realistic show about college basketball without 12,000-15,000 extras on the stands for every game. Not happening. Not yet, anyway. Just wait until 15,000 virtual fans can be added to a digitally-enhanced stadium … then the idea might have serious potential. But while we’re on the subject …
4. “The Program”
Here’s a movie that would have acquitted itself much better as a television show. If you remember, “The Program” had about 15 plots going at once, all of which wrapped up neatly in about 100 minutes. And the movie failed. There’s no question. Even if I watch the damn thing every time it shows on Showtime, “The Program” still failed. Lousy movie. It could have been much better. And you know it.
(My biggest problem: It drives me batty when Hollywood makes a college movie and casts people in their thirties to portray the students. Just plain insulting. If Craig Sheffer and Halle Berry didn’t accept their roles, apparently Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross were Plan B.)
Here’s my point: “Program” would have worked beautifully as a TV series, for all the reasons listed above in the “Blue Chips” section, but with the added bonus that the producers could borrow stock footage from the CFL or World Football League for game sequences to slice costs (they could digitally re-write the letters on the end zones and have them say “STATE” or “CAILIFORNIA” or whatever). It’s the biggest no-brainer of all-time.
I’m telling you, if HBO acquired the rights to “The Program” tomorrow, made the right casting choices, found a name actor to play the head coach and refused to pull any punches … well, people would come, Ray. People would definitely come.
5. “Tin Cup”
I’m not sure if the Roy McAvoy storyline from “Cup” would make for the quintessential golf show, but some elements would work — Roy’s goofy relationship with his caddy, his crush on a sports psychologist, his rivalry with the more-successful former college teammate, maybe even an occasional drinking problem that flares up at inopportune times. It certainly wouldn’t be worse than 75 percent of the crap that’s already showing on the tube.
Some problems: How would the whole “PGA tournaments happening in different cities every week” thing be settled? How would the McAvoy-type character have a home base? And how would you ban the PGA golfers (some of the most boring men on the planet) from pining for cameos? I’m not sure this would work. Ironically enough, the PBA Tour could provide a much better vehicle — cheaper locations, goofier characters and you could even head in the “Kingpin” direction and make it goofy/quirky.
(Note: Just the mere mention of a “Tin Cup” spinoff probably has Cheech Marin fired up beyond belief. How fast would Cheech say yes? 1.2 seconds? 1.8? Would he take a deep breath first and extend it to 3.5 seconds?)
6. “Any Given Sunday”
With CFL footage? Why not? All the themes from “Sunday” and every other football movie would work on the small screen — petty rivalries, sexual hijinks, charismatic head coaches, raw talent vs. experience, drug/steroid use, newcomers trying to fit in and everything else. Hopefully, the pilot would be targeted for a major network, if only to spare us from a repeat of the locker room scene that featured a frontal shot of a naked offensive lineman. That was more haunting than the last 30 minutes of “The Shining.”
Two major drawbacks for “Sunday” on TV: An inevitably large cast would drive up budget costs and make it difficult for fans to follow the first few episodes (unless there were a number of recognizable stars). Also, I’m not sure it could work as a drama with some many people involved — you might be better off heading in the “Unnecessary Roughness” direction and making it a comedy out. And that already happened with “1st & Ten,” to limited success.
7. “Mystery, Alaska”
For some reason, this movie keeps reeling me in on cable, if only because it’s perversely fun to locate the moment when Russell Crowe finally gets that “Screw it, I give up” look on his face and starts mailing in every scene. Always cracks me up.
“Mystery” would fail miserably as a TV show — obviously — but you could create a minor-league hockey show that would work for many of the same reasons that a “Bull Durham”-type show would work, with the added bonus that many of the guys would be speaking with Canadian accents and saying things like “fran-CHEYE-ze” and “organ-EYE-zation.” And if it was good enough … at least the hockey diehards would watch it.
(Of course, that goes without saying. These are the same people who recite lines from “Youngblood” like “Ya wanna go, Pretty Boy” on a moment’s notice, and that movie nearly ended Rob Lowe’s career. Very loyal crowd.)
8. “All the Right Moves”
Could have been a combination of “Dawson’s Creek,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Varsity Blues” and the superb book “Friday Night Lights” in the right hands. Just an incredible amount of material to work with here: the head coach looking for his big break; colleges recruiting the players; the lure of steroids and drugs; girlfriends trapping the star players; easy-to-film game sequences and much more. We even glimpsed the immense potential here with ESPN’s riveting documentary about a high school team in Pennsylvania earlier this year (“The Season”).
One catch though, and it’s the same problem that killed the “White Shadow”: the casting/writing process becomes even more crucial during those second and third seasons, once regulars start graduating and new characters come onto the scene. Nothing kills a sports-related TV show faster than the dreaded wardellstoneitis.
9. “Bull Durham”
A likable movie that could have worked just as well in series form, if only because a minor-league setting provides the perfect backdrop for a TV show. You could build your own Double-A stadium, hire about 500-600 extras for the baseball scenes and have a cast of 20-22 players and five or six coaches, with only eight or nine heavy speaking parts. For game sequences, you could import real-life minor-league teams and players who would probably covet an easy paycheck and 15 minutes of fame. Plus, everything that made “Bull Durham” so endearing — goofy characters, dugout chatter, realistic game scenes (other than Robbins) — would easily transfer to the small screen.
When you think about it, it’s amazing that nobody has attempted another minor-league baseball show since “Bay City Blues.” Maybe you wouldn’t even have to rip off “Bull Durham.” Let’s face it: You wouldn’t have to be ultra-creative to come up with a fictional baseball team in the middle of nowhere that features …
- The Crusty Manager
- The Aging-Probably-Past-His-Prime Pitcher
- The Up-and-Coming Hot Prospect
- The Token Hot Chick Who Lives In Town
- The Token Grizzled Used-To-Be-Hot-But-She’s-Still-Sexy Bimbo
- The Token Funny Guy
- The Token Born-Again Infielder
- The Token Foreigner Who Can’t Speak English
- The Token Angry Guy Who Hates Everybody
- The Token Fat Catcher
- The Token Wacky Announcer
… I mean, this isn’t rocket science. Cast the parts properly and it couldn’t miss. I can’t believe this hasn’t happened yet. Seriously.
One more note: If/when it happens, let’s hope it happens on HBO or Showtime. We need sex, we need hijinks, we need swearing, and dammit, we need boobs. Now somebody in Hollywood needs to get to work … and if they can’t find somebody to write this thing, as Tom Skerritt said to Maverick in “Top Gun,” “Give me a call … I’ll fly with you.”
Just remember, even if everything else fails, Hollywood could always re-make “The White Shadow.” They wouldn’t even have to bring back the same characters; in fact, it’s probably a better idea if they bring any of them back. Just maintain the theme of “Former NBA White Guy takes over predominantly-black team in an L.A. ghetto,” find some quality actors and writers, emphasize realism in the game scenes, and let the story carry things from there.
It’s time, isn’t it? With all the changes in high school hoops since 1982 — street agents, summer leagues dominated by gangs, shoe companies throwing cash around like Monopoly money, star players driving SUVs, sleazy family members with agendas, colleges cheating more than ever, coaches attaching themselves to their star players as a package deal, the immediate lure of the NBA and the potential of nine-figure contracts — it’s probably time to bring back the fictional Carver High, anyway.
They could even repackage some of the old “Shadow” plots: Reese getting recruited by a rival high school, Coolidge getting recruited by a street agent, Reese’s girlfriend pretending she was pregnant and Jackson betting against his own team, to name four. And you could have subtle tie-ins to the old show, like Thomas Carter (Hayward), Kevin Hooks (Thorpe) and Tim Van Patten (Salami) directing some of the episodes, or even Byron Stewart (Coolidge) working as a janitor at Carver (you might remember that “Shadow” creator Bruce Paltrow turned Coolidge into a janitor for “St. Elsewhere” in the mid-80s).
Would it work? I’m not sure how “White Shadow 2002” could fail, just like I’m not sure how a show about a minor-league baseball team or college football team could fail. Then again, everything looks better on paper, and as Ken Reeves once said, “Talk is cheap, and rumors are even cheaper.”
All I know is this: Somebody in Hollywood needs to get off their butt, create a quality sports show and end The Curse of Coolidge … even if they have to bring back Carver High to make it happen. Twenty years has been long enough.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.