Director – Charlie Ebersol
Length – 77 minutes without commercials, 90 minutes with.
Installment – #88 by my count. ESPN considers this #92 as they count the OJ documentary as 5 separate installments (they also don’t count the “suspended” Down In The Valley installment)
Most Similar To – Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, Sole Man
Grade/Ranking – High 30’s of 88 installments
Review – I have a suspicion that This Was The XFL is going to have one of the wider skews in terms of how viewers react opposed to critics and more savvy movie buffs and documentary enthusiasts. The film is fun, fast, interesting, and entertaining and revisits something colorful that is mostly has faded away in our collective memory. It’s a great topic and for most, I suspect it will go over well. Ratings wise, with a solid lead in and earlier start time, I think ESPN should see a bigger number than usual for a weekday 30 for 30 release.
With that said, I found myself wanting more. A lot more. If you read my reviews, you know I’m a heavy user of random analogies and what I’ll go with for this installment is that it felt like I was on the Jurassic Park tour but the SUV just sped around the park at 40 mph, never slowing down to spend time with the dinosaurs. Every few minutes, I’d find myself astounded by some element of the XFL’s history and wanting to dive into that a bit more, but the film marched forward at a pace you rarely see in any 30 for 30 or even an aggressively planned pub crawl.
Length of these films is something I always scrutinize given, unlike documentaries on Neflix or HBO or theatrical releases, installments have to fit into specific broadcast windows. Typically my feedback is something like “Too long. People will start playing with their phone 10 minutes in or may change the channel.” This is one of the rare instances where this definitely could have been stretched out another 30 minutes or perhaps even longer. It’s not just that what was covered in the film was told at an accelerated pace, but reading the league’s Wikipedia page and some articles left me scratching my head as to why so many major developments in the league’s history and additional context wasn’t in the film at all.
This brings me to other issue I had. While the film was definitely hindered by time constraints, This Was The XFL is a bit too polite and not introspective enough especially when you compare it to the 30 for 30 on the USFL, which was a very well crafted installment.
Here is the thing, though. This film was done by Charlie Ebersol, son of legendary TV executive Dick Ebersol, who, along with Vince McMahon, really was one of the two masterminds behind this spectacularly failed endeavor. Does this film even get made if Charlie is not the one helming the project and getting the access, footage, etc needed to do this the film? VERY unlikely.
But the tradeoff is that without a totally neutral and perhaps even more seasoned filmmaker steering the project, the film just lacks the deep introspection and context I think the more savvy viewer would appreciate. There are long stretches where we don’t see McMahon or Ebersol despite their participation when we get into the downward spiral of the league. I found myself thinking a few times “Wait, what does McMahon have to say about this?” and again when you read up further on the league, there are some sizable events missing and narratives that didn’t make it into the film, which were certainly relevant and impactful to the fate of the league.
One of the things that made Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (the USFL 30 for 30) one of the better installments is that it was really extensive (aided by a knowledgable narrator) and the ability to squarely point the finger at Donald Trump for the league’s failing. We don’t get that firm specificity as to what went wrong and who is to blame here other than the football was terrible.
All that said, I imagine only a fraction of the viewing audience will share my concerns. This Was The XFL checks most of the boxes that viewers look for as the subject matter is compelling and memorable and the pace will keep people engaged. It’s a fun film and if the choice was no XFL documentary at all or one that isn’t hearty enough, I’m certainly fine with that tradeoff and I imagine most will be too.