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Playmakers
The Complete Series

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rated: TV-MA

Starring: Tony Denison, Omar Gooding, Russell Hornsby, Jason Matthew Smith, Marcello Thedford, Christopher Wiehl

Starring: 491 Minutes

Written by: John Eisendrath, Stephen Hootstein, Peter Egan, Edwin Eisendrath, Michael Angeli, Charles D. Holland, Craig Sweeny

Directed by: Scott Brazil, T.J. Scott, Brad Turner, Bruce McDonald, John Fawcett, Terry Ingram, Ken Girotti, John Bell, Chris Grismer, Stephen Williams

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $49.99

Features:
Disc 1: Audio Commentary with Creator/Writer/Executive Producer John Eisendrath
Disc 2: On-Set With Snoop Dogg, Behind-The-Scenes

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Episode Selections, Scene Selection (6 scenes per episode), Three-Disc Set

Released: June 8th, 2004

 

 

Does controversy usually sell or does it usually destroy? It's a tough question to decide on - certainly there is plenty of media out there that thrives on controversy (movies like "The Passion Of The Christ" come to mind, not to mention some graphic TV shows and profane-ladden rap music), but sometimes people are turned off by negative elements and something dwindles down into nothing and fades away. Politictians and advocacy groups may try to tune something with mass appeal down, or even turn it off. But free speech is popular, and is something that really shouldn't be reckoned with or limited.

The TV series "Playmakers" is an interesting case. The show opened to rave reviews when it debuted on ESPN during late August of 2003, and did exceptionally well in the ratings. ESPN had a few original movies before, but looking to branch out further, this was the network's first scripted TV series. The show was certainly garnering a lot of buzz, but maybe for the wrong reasons. Sure, it was getting applauded for its writing and acting, but many saw it as a backstage look of what possibly goes on behind-the-scenes in the NFL - and needless to say, it wasn't pretty. The show's unflinching look at some pretty risky stuff got not only critics, but the news media and the public talking.

What is a bit fascinating about all this is that "Playmakers" wasn't canned because it wasn't that great or it was struggling to find an audience - Disney (which owns ESPN) was feeling the pressure. Disney and ESPN has some ties to the NFL, and the NFL spoke out and heavily criticized the program. Fearing a backlash from the NFL and being at risk to lose a partnership (read: money) with them because of the show, Disney (actually, rumor has it was Michael Eisner) aganoized for quite awhile whether to keep the show on or let it go. The show was a success and there was plenty to gain in that, and while Eisner said the show's return was a "fifty-fifty chance," the NFL's badgering won out. Obviously, that relationship was more important and the plug was pulled on "Playmakers." (If they may have sensed controversy, why did they go with the show in the first place?)

So what made a show like "Playmakers" controversial in the first place anyway? Whether you want to see this as the truth about some professional athletes and what they get caught up in is totally up to you. The show follows the fictional NFL team The Cougars - mainly its players. There's stuff that goes on during game time, but there's a hell of a lot that happens to these athletes when they aren't playing. The show covers such topics as critical injuries, drugs, steroid use, management deals, shootings, crimes and even spousal abuse. While I personally don't see "Playmakers" as 100% factual, given my own knowledge, what I have read and what's shown on the news, I believe there's some truth to be found in its plotlines which can be applied back to real athletes and sports organizations. Besides, if the NFL kept denying how unrealistic the show was, then what did they have to worry about in the first place? That maybe this program would influence a few people? Certainly, there was some nerve triggered off there.

It's really a shame this show won't be coming back, because I believe this series really was unique and wasn't just another dramatic show on that was causing controversy for no reason - I really don't recall seeing anything quite like "Playmakers" before, and certainly not on basic cable. Each episodes has the ability to really suck you in - the writing had strong observations, quick dialogue and certainly a lot of tension, feeling and character to it. The directing and production values were outstanding too - the on-field action was very realistic and always looked great, but there was always a harshness and "in-your-face" attitude in the moments when there weren't any games going on. The series has a lot of jump edits, quick camera movements and this raw intensity that really made you part of the action - it was never shy about showing anything graphic. With the pulse-pounding narratives and cinematic movements (including color filters), I'd say "Playmakers" certainly rivaled shows on HBO (which ended up setting a whole new standard for all of television). While the show certainly did accomplish in bringing out a lot of topics in its entire run, each episode there was something new and really harsh going on. All this happening week after week may have been a bit much for some viewers to swallow, but the show certainly did push the envelope and really created riveting plots to get caught up and really invest themselves in.

The acting in the show is fantastic as well. Tony Denison as the coach certainly added a lot of hardness and heat, especially with his interactions with the players. Omar Gooding, Cuba's younger brother, was pretty terrific as he showed vulneralbity with his problem-ridden character. If you ask me though, the stand-outs in the series were Marcello Thedford (who could be a bit nasty but led this compelling charisma to his character) and Jason Matthew Smith as one passionate hardhitter with his own dilemmas. This was a truly a fine ensemble, as the show gave a chance for the characters to show their own perspectives and as a result, for the actors to really show their skills off.

It's doubtful ESPN will re-air the series, or that another cable network will pick it up to show. However, there's still quite a bit of money to be made on DVD - especially with TV shows on DVD being the rage these days. With that said, the controversy may have died down completely, but in a weird way the show isn't entirely buried and perhaps its topics and issues will live on and keep being discussed, especially with a whole new fan base who didn't get a chance to see the series orginally. The NFL got its wish, and despite the little controversy that is left now, it may not even make a difference - because maybe for Disney, it was all win-win to begin with: they will still be profting off of the show.

This three-disc set includes the entire series - which lasted eleven episodes. They are: "Pilot (Game Day"), "The Piss Man," "The Choice," "The Choice Part II," "Halftime," "Man In Motion," "Talk Radio," Down and Distance," "The Outing," "Tenth Of A Second" and "Week 17." If you missed the show on ESPN or never had cable, and if you are a drama fan and sports fan, then do check out this show. It's riveting, well-produced and very entertaining - even if you're not entirely into football.

 

All the episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and these transfers are very impressive. At times the show looks a little grainy, but the transfers are pretty sharp overall with no edge enhancement and minimal noise. The prints are pretty clean, while fleshtones look great and detail comes out very nice. The color saturation is excellent too - there are a wide array of hues at work in the show, and they are bold and pretty vibrant, let alone blend in exceptionally. The greens of the stadium turfs, the oceanside views of the players' homes, the locker room and a lot more. These transfers are fit, and quite fantastic.

 

All the episodes are given English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, and these are certainly some of the best 5.1 mixes I've heard on a television show. As I said, this show is intense and action-packed and these tracks definitely show that off. The music comes through the speakers really well - the show's opening music sounds great, as do the original background compositions that are heard during the episodes. Dialogue is crystal clear and comes through quite well, but the surround sounds do pack a lot of punches and get things kicking. Crowd noises are wonderful, but the tackling, hitting, gunshots and overall violence really sound discrete as these sounds have quite the zing to them. The dynamics are really on-target here, with high fidelity and robust subwoofer use. Also great, the sound elements mix together well and nothing really does overlap together. If you have a decent sound system, these tracks won't disappoint. English subtitles and English closed captioning are also included.

 

This is the only set of "Playmakers" we're probably going to get, and while I suppose there could have been more, viewers won't be left with nothing in the extras department. The only extra on the first disc is Audio Commentary with Creator/Writer/Executive Producer John Eisendrath. Eisendrath's sole commentary covers a lot of ground, and he certainly comes across as intelligent and what he hoped to cover with the show. Eisendrath touches upon that the show was orignally pitched to FX but they passed, and a few years later ESPN wanted to do an original series. Since he had a lot more than a pitch and it was all fleshed out, they went with it. Eisendrath talks about how the show is different from other sports show, and cites that the lack of football action is important. He also goes on about the characters, and his choosings in developing them. At times Eisendrath does state the obvious, but he really brings a lot of insight into why the show worked and what he wanted to do with it. This is a very good commentary that fans of the show should be quite happy with.

On the third disc, we have two featurettes. The first, On-Set With Snoop Dogg is in non-anamorphic widescreen and focuses on rapper Snoop Dogg's guest appearance. Snoop says he was a big fan of the show so he got in touch with the producers, and in some way, history was made. Executive producer Orly Adelson talks about him (and Snoop talks about his work), but other than that, we see clips of Snoop's appearance on the show and behind-the-scenes footage of him working. This lasts four minutes and eighteen seconds.

And in last, there's a Behind The Scenes featurette lasting twelve minutes and twenty-four seconds - also in non-anamorphic widescreen. In addition to clips from the show and on-the-set footage, we hear from Eisendrath, Adelson and cast members about the show. The show's premise and controversial elements are covered, but there's also a lot on the casting and the strong attention to detail the crew put in. It's clear a lot of hard work went into the series (or at least the pilot), and while this is nice, it should have been longer and gone in-depth in other areas. Nonetheless, it is worth watching.

 

Perhaps "Playmakers" was ahead of its time as this is a great, interesting if sometimes over-the-top show. I can see Disney's reasoning for cancelling the series, but I still think it was the wrong move and definitely deserved a longer life. I can only assume in the future, if ESPN does have original series, they will be less tamer. As far as a DVD set, this is pretty good. All eleven episodes are included with excellent presentations, and there's a few extras to boot. If you were a fan of the series, then this is a set you'll want for your collection.