Sometime, somewhere, you have probably heard some variation of the cliché “You couldn’t script it!” used to describe the inevitable improbability of sports. But damned if ESPN didn’t once try.
“Sports,” then-ESPN senior vice president and general manager of programming Mark Shapiro told reporters in October 2002, “is drama. And a scripted dramatic series is the next logical step in ESPN Original Entertainment’s extension of the ESPN brand.”
Shapiro’s promise of a scripted series came amid a yearlong deluge of programming experimentation from the Worldwide Leader in Sports. In 2001, ESPN was just five years removed from Disney’s purchase of the network, and had not too much further back than that been filling its daytime airwaves with aerobics instructions and low-level pro wrestling.
To wit, the last first-run edition of the Global Wrestling Federation appeared on ESPN in 1994; the final Bodies in Motion with Gilad aired in 1996.
A half-decade into the Mickey Mouse era, ESPN ramped up efforts to rebrand beyond live-game broadcasts and Sportscenter. But fall 2001 marked the beginning of a pivotal few years for the network, kicking off a period that Shapiro declared in a conference call in July of that year to be “an unprecedented chapter in the growth of ESPN.”
“People have over 200 channels, including pay-per-view channels, plus video, to choose from. It’s a competitive environment,” Shapiro added.
Competing prompted concepts that didn’t take off, such as Jay Mohr’s Tonight Show-style program Mohr Sports. Another—Pardon The Interruption—changed the entire complexion of cable TV sports programming.
The immediate success of PTI did not produce an instant tidal wave of the assorted knockoffs that make up most of the ESPN and ESPN2 non-event docket today, however. WWL brass had other concepts in the pipeline for the next few years, including jumping onto the reality TV craze of the early-aughts.
Beg, Borrow and Deal debuted in 2002, but not before ditching the originally-planned 2000s edgelord title Beg, Borrow and B.S. A retooled name didn’t make this attempt at a The Amazing Race-style reality show any better, though, and the series barely registered.
Any success ESPN had breaking into “reality” TV came unintentionally with the spring 2003 addition of the World Series of Poker into the network’s rotation.
Ventures into traditionally scripted content, meanwhile, also premiered around this time. Most notably, ESPN aired a pair of heavily promoted movies adapted from popular non-fiction books. These films—A Season on the Brink, based on John Feinstein’s dive into the tumultuous 1985-86 Indiana basketball campaign; and The Junction Boys, based on Jim Dent’s book covering “Bear” Bryant’s hellish training camp at Texas A&M—were the precursors to ESPN getting into fiction.
THE BALANCE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION
Excellent works of film or television have been based on the real-life stories sports produce. Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull adapts the memoir of boxing champion Jake LaMotta into one of the most profound and influential works of Scorcese’s illustrious career, for example.
Even the best biopics or based-on-a-true-story adaptations take certain liberties with reality either for runtime or dramatic effect. Dramatize reality too much, however, and you end up with something like the 2005 film Cinderella Man.
The otherwise forgettable dramatization of Great Depression-era boxing champion James J. Braddock is mostly memorable for needlessly depicting Max Baer as a cartoonishly evil antagonist better suited to a Rocky sequel than as a representation of the historical figure and hero to a marginalized demographic Baer actually was.
For ESPN, a network that catered to hardcore sports fan, presenting true stories the core audience would know while offering enough drama to appeal to casual demographics, this was an especially tricky proposition.
I remember watching A Season on the Brink with my dad, a basketball junkie and long-time coach, who was utterly incredulous with the casting of the late Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight. Dennehy was a terrific actor who brought a natural gruffness well-suited to depicting Knight. But he looked nothing like the former IU coach.
Tom Berenger was a better choice as far as physically resembling a younger Bear Bryant in his A&M days. And Berenger played the famed coach with a menacing sternness that showed shades of Berenger’s performance as Staff Sgt. Barnes in the powerful 1986 film Platoon. But whereas Platoon depicted the horrors of war, critics of The Junction Boys contended the film soft-peddled the arguably abusive nature of Bryant’s tactics for weeding out prospective players in 1954.
ESPN’s scripted non-fiction had an inauspicious start in 2002. But it didn’t deter the network from pursuing scripted fiction a year later.
Now, the inherently dramatic nature of sports lends itself to compelling fiction across a variety of mediums: in film, evident in the enduring influence of Rocky and its excellent contemporary follow-up, Creed; in literature with Mark Harris’ tear-jerking novel Bang the Drum Slowly; and in television, maybe best exemplified with Friday Night Lights.
But there may not be a sub-genre that deviates in quality more than sports fiction. For every Rocky, there’s more than enough clunkers like Ed, the Matt LeBlanc vehicle with a chimpanzee that plays baseball—or, a more fitting example in this case, Rocky V.
On TV, Friday Night Lights may have been a critical hit, but its second season was a disaster that threatened to go off the rails and abandon the football focus and realism for teen drama and absurdity not unlike One Tree Hill.
As a personal aside, One Tree Hill was a guilty pleasure throughout the series run. However, the finished product strayed wildly from creator Mark Schwann’s original vision for a film that sounds more like a millennial Hoosiers or a proto-Friday Night Lights than it does the quintessential CW teen vehicle that ran from 2003 through 2012.
Such is the difficult balance when crafting sports-themed fiction, appealing both to the core audience tuning in because they love the sport around which the drama is building while trying to draw in outsiders. Deviating too far from reality, even in fiction, threatens to alienate the former audience. And yet, the ultimate undoing that ESPN’s first scripted effort may have had was that it held too close to reality.
PLAYMAKERS MAKES NO FRIENDS WITH THE NFL
Playmakers followed the on-and-off-field exploits of the Cougars, a fictional professional football team in a fictional league.
To be clear, Playmakers was fantastic. It was gritty in ways that came to define cable programming, but that only FX’s The Shield was doing at the time.
Ahead of its time in both presentation as well as content, Playmakers presented subplots that weren’t necessarily mainstream concerns about professional football at the time, like quarterback Derek McDonnell battling pain-killer reliance to stay on the field; or star running back Leon Taylor embroiled in a domestic abuse case.
The show was also a decade ahead of Michael Sam being drafted into the NFL with the show’s storyline following Thad Guerwicz, a wide receiver who tried to hide his sexuality from a world he didn’t feel was ready to accept him.
Playmakers was well-written, well-acted, and even featured believable football sequences—a surprisingly difficult element for filmmakers to capture when using the gridiron as the stage for drama.
And, despite taking place in an entirely fictitious world, the series rubbed NFL brass the wrong way.
Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue appeared on a December 2003 edition of HBO’s Inside the NFL, during which he lamented the success of Playmakers.
Tagliabue, recounting complaints he made directly to then-Disney chief Michael Eisner, described Playmakers as “one-dimensional and [trading] in racial stereotypes and I didn’t think it was appropriate for ESPN or right for our players.”
The commissioner seemingly wearing the hat of TV critic feels quizzical. Let’s revisit what one actual critic offered for balance.
From his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column on New Year’s Day 2004, here’s Rob Owen, who deemed Playmakers the best series of 2003:
“Crybaby NFL players and executives will likely a derail a second season of this compelling ESPN drama. Maybe it exaggerates the bad boy behavior (not by a lot judging by the headlines), but what TV show is totally realistic?”
Owen’s column brought up a great point. And as for Tagliabue’s hand-wringing over the series not being “right for our players,” the complaint feels a bit like if high school chemistry teachers nationwide decried the first season of Breaking Bad as portraying the entire profession as meth-cooking kingpins-in-the-making.
What’s more, if the drama depicted is unrealistic, as Tagliabue complained, but focuses on a fictitious team in a fictitious league…why should the NFL have cared?
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, speaking to the Associated Press, said his initial impression of Playmakers was that it was “hot garbage…shock treatment at first to get everybody to watch it.
“But then it started getting into what it’s really like and the reality of our lives,” he added.
Unintentionally, an NFL player at first critical of the series may have given Tagliabue’s game away.
It was a winning game for the league, too. Despite drawing an average of 1.3 million viewers, including according to the AP a large demographic of women — a group Shapiro said in his 2001 statements was a priority for the network — Playmakers died after its lone season.
Ed Sherman of Knight Ridder News Service wrote in February 2004, when word officially came down that the series was not to be renewed, “‘Playmakers’ had everything the network wanted in its first dramatic show show.
“It was a big critical hit on the verge of developing a cult-like following, much like HBO’s ‘The Sopranos.’ But ‘Playmakers’ had one big detractor: The NFL.”
Later in the same article, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said of the cancellation, “It was an ESPN decision.”
While some ESPN personalities jumped on board with that decision, that may have been the single-most fictitious sentiment to have come from Playmakers’ all-too-brief run 20 years ago.
TILT GOES BUST
ESPN went a year between scripted fictional projects, with the Barry Pepper-starring scripted dramatized film version of Dale Earnhardt’s life, 3, filling the gap in 2004.
In 2005, the longing fans of Playmakers had for something to fill the void…well, that didn’t materialize. But January 2005 marked the debut of Tilt, the second and final effort in the network’s foray into scripted drama.
Whereas Playmakers was a critical hit that gained an enduring following, Tilt was more…well, what you might expect of a scripted show on ESPN.
The concept was promising enough, featuring a veteran card shark with shady motivations and his young understudy working undercover to bring down an illegal operation. Consider the elevator pitch Donnie Brasco meets Rounders.
And, in fact, Rounders co-writer David Levien — who has since hit it big in prestige cable television with Showtime’s Billions–had a hand in creating Tilt.
Everything on paper suggested it should have been another winner—and one with staying power, since Tilt couldn’t run afoul of a heavyweight partner like the NFL.
The series even landed a major star for one of the lead roles, a stark contrast to Playmakers. While the cast of Playmakers all nailed their respective performances, the biggest name at the series’ outset was Omar Gooding; and he was noteworthy for being the lesser-known brother of A-lister Cuba Gooding.
Tilt, on the other hand, had frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Michael Madsen. Maybe I’m the only one, but I once had a Bill Pullman/Bill Paxton Paradox confusion between Madsen and his Reservoir Dogs co-star Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s collaboration with an ESPN talent was quite a bit different than Madsen’s, however.
Although Madsen co-starred as secondary antagonist Budd in Kill Bill Vol. 2 the prior year before Tilt, his career was on a decided downswing at this juncture. And that may have impacted his performance in the ESPN series.
“I had a small, not very fulfilling interaction with Michael,” recounted Norman Chad, the longtime World Series of Poker color commentator who appeared as himself—which Chad said was “much harder than it looks”—in Tilt’s just-barely-fictionalized version of the WSoP.
“I don’t think he was happy doing the show,” Chad said of Madsen. “Eddie Cibrian [the actor who played Tilt’s protagonist, Eddie Towne]…was so delightful to be around. Michael Madsen was the complete opposite.
“Eddie Cibrian was on the way up, and Michael would have reviewed this as on the way down,” Chad added. “My interactions were terse and uncomfortable.”
One interaction the commentator described: after a few moments of awkward silence as the crew prepared a shot of an interview between Chad and Madsen’s character, Don “Matador” Everest, while on set in Toronto, Chad attempted to break the ice.
The reception he describes was more frigid than the silence.
“I’m paraphrasing: [Madsen] turned to me and said, ‘Cut out the small talk, let’s just get done with the [expletive deleted] shoot,” Chad said with a laugh. “But everybody else was terrific.”
Chad said, when asked about his memories of Tilt, “I forget about that sometimes.” And he’s not alone.
Although the series drew an average of 970,000 viewers during its run from January into March 2005—which the South Florida Sun-Sentinel noted was a 28-percent increase from NHL ratings on ESPN over the same timeframe a year earlier—Tilt disappeared without a second season, and to little fanfare.
The show’s abbreviated run also marked an unceremonious end to the ESPN scripted-drama endeavor. By mid-2005, the popularity of PTI and its 2003 spin-off, Around The Horn, had unofficially marked the transition of the Worldwide Leader into its still-prevalent programming strategy of “Embrace Debate.”
It was in 2005 that Cold Pizza—the short-lived ESPN spin on the Good Morning America style variety show—more prominently featured Skip Bayless and Woody Paige arguing than the more GMA-inspired type of content. Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith also launched in 2005, foreshadowing the eponymous host’s current ubiquity on the Worldwide Leader in the following decade.
Whether the network’s transition into this brand of contrived arguing is a positive is…well, up for debate. But one takeaway from ESPN’s brief foray into fiction is that it did indeed prove you really can’t script the drama inherent to sports.
[Playmakers image via L’Equipe]