Addicted to ‘Playmakers?’

“Playmakers”The Complete Series3 DiscsMSRP $49.99TV-MAFoster KamerA&E EditorTalk about an unfortunateseries of events. ESPN hadsomething really good goingon with creator John Eisendrath’snow-defunct scripteddrama “Playmakers.”With its first shot at a fictionalshow, ESPN had a hit onits hands. “Playmakers” wasdrawing five times the normalamount of viewers (somewherearound 2 million-hugefor cable ratings) for its timeslot after only a few episodeshad aired. The cast of theshow had no big-name starsunder its belt, the lone exceptionbeing Snoop Dogg’s guestappearance on one of the episodes.And let’s face it, peoplewatch ESPN for their sportsfeed, and there’s enough dramaon an hour of SportsCenterto keep chair-jockeys satisfiedfor the rest of their night.”Playmakers” revolvesaround a fake football teamin a fake football league, andwhat goes on when they aren’tplaying their fake footballgames. Now, imagine that-actorsacting as football playersacting out their emotions.This already poses a problem;the people who wouldwatch “Playmakers” (footballfans) aren’t exactly the emotionallyopen, melodramatictypes. In fact, there is not evenmuch on-the-field-action in”Playmakers.” People whowatch prime-time dramassuch as Fox’s The O.C. andCBS’s CSI already have previoussoap addictions of whichto clean themselves.So (question of all questions)why were so many peoplewatching “Playmakers?”Even better: If so many peoplewere watching “Playmakers,”why did ESPN bench its rookieof the year after only oneseason?Because “Playmakers” (likeany quality superstar) wasyoung, fresh, controver sial,ground breaking and had justas much talk as it did game-on and off the screen.The pilot episode had linebackerEric Olczyk (JasonMatthew Smith) seeing ashrink and popping anti-depressantsafter paralyzing andnearly killing someone froman opposing team during amid-game tackle.Olczyk’s close friend on theteam, Leon Taylor (RusselHornsby), is being sidelined infavor of the young/hot superstarD.H., who has a slight, uh,crack problem (among otherthings). Too bad D.H. has theWhite-Old-Money owner inhis pocket, and too bad Taylorhas to deal with spousal-abuseallegations in his spare time.Coach George (Tony Denison)is having health problemshe won’t disclose to the team,which is unlike the life of teamQB McConnell (Chris Wiehl).Somehow, everyone in townseems to know that he’s sleepingwith everyone in town.And that’s just the beginning,folks. There’s a nightclubshooting, there’s halftimecrack fiending, there’s a widereceiver who comes out of thecloset (and takes a beatingfor it!), paternity tests, drugtests, strip clubs, booze, locker-room brawls, more booze,more drugs, more money,shady union negotiations, etc.Imagine E.R. on the gridiron,and you’ll get a slight idea ofwhat episodes like “Half Time”are like: An entire team comeslimping into the locker roomwhile a clock counts down the20 minutes until they have toreturn to battle.Sports medicine and playbooklingo is screamed everywhere,bouncing backand forth against the lockerswhile players are screamingfor more, what did he ask for,crack?In other words, emotionsare running high. Not like apro football game is enough,these guys are still dealingwith their sensitive sides,too-what little they have.And that’s what gives “Playmakers”its heart.Everyone on Playmakers isalways fighting for something,and like football, they k eep ongetting knocked back on theground. It teeters betweenexistentialism and straight nihilismsometimes-and thesearen’t faux-Abercrombie models,these are football players.Squeezing emotion out ofEisendrath’s players is liketrying to feel in touch with apig skin-unless it’s physical,it’s not happening. And boy,does it get physical. So comethe emotions.The acting doesn’t always dothe show justice; sometimesJason Matthew Smith’s Olczykjust foxtrots around letting itall go, coming off weaker thanhis character should be. Othertimes, Olczyk is a wreck, andyou can’t get enough of hisgood-guy/bad-guy righteousnessin decision-making.Denison’s Coach Georgeonly gets so much screentime, and we’d want more if somuch of it weren’t wasted onpetty, weak scenes.But then there’s OmarGooding. His character, D.H.,epitomizes the sensationalismof a professional athlete “superstar,”in all of his glamorous,vice-ridden indulgences.And that swagger. Ooh! Kid’sgot some swagger!Russell Hornsby’s Taylorplays the old-age-treacherycard in perfect sync to D.H.when he’s not a glutton foremotional punishment.Performances on “Playmakers”came around eventually.In fact, by the end of the sea-son, the performances, like the writing, cinematographyand chemistry between the cast,directors and writers seemed to be gettingmore and more fine-tuned with each episode.Even Snoop Dogg’s guest appearance near theend of the season strikes emotional chords insteadof coming off campy.So why would ESPN permanently shelve”Playmakers” on the IR (“injured reserve” list,for those who haven’t been watching) after allthe ratings, all the critical acclaim, all the momentumthe show had going for it?The final touchdown of “Playmakers'” championshiprun came in its demise. ESPN/Disneycrumbled under pressure from NFL ownerswho didn’t like the image of decadent, unwholesomefootball players.They were so upset that “Playmakers” had nofactual bearing whatsoever that the NFL startedtossing off threats against ESPN. Somethingabout canceling all broadcast rights to gamesor something. Needless to say, The MouseHouse caved in.This is really only another testament to howspot-on “Playmakers” was-the bureaucraticmurder of the show could easily fit into any oneof “Playmakers'” 12 episodes. Whoever thoughta football drama could get postmodern?Maybe it’s better that “Playmakers” got canceled,though. It ended on a high note and neverjumped the shark. It went out in a ball offlames. It’s immortalized on DVD as this sickexperiment that went so much better than itwas supposed to-so much better, in fact, thatthey had to kill it.Special features? They’re OK. There’s a commentaryfrom Eisendrath for the pilot episodethat provides trivia-insight into how the showgot started, but for fans of the show, it’ll payoff. There’re two “behind the scenes” features(one of them starring, who else, Snoop) thatare worth a look.But when the clock winds down, and that 12thepisode ends, the DVD special features will bethe last thing you’re thinking about. “Playmakers,”in its life and death, made bold statementson professional sports that needed to be spoken,if not, screamed. It was entertaining as helland always on fire, and the DVDs just leave youwanting more.This is the stuff good TV is made of, bottomline. “Playmakers'” final score may never beremembered, but so long as you can have thisin your collection, the victory dance will [email protected]