I'm a huge football fan. I love the sport and I love the movies. I'd watch football every weekend if I could. Still, I was a little hesitant when I received the complete series of ESPN's Playmakers. I thought it was going to be a watered down Any Given Sunday with simplified but outrageous situations, overly emotional characters, and poor acting. In other words, a soap opera for men. After watching a few episodes, I realized it was all of these things. But you know what? I liked it anyway.
Playmakers is a powerful drama about a fictional professional football team, the Carolina Cougars, that deals with how the players handle themselves off the field. Sure, there's a fair amount of game action, but the real meat of the story revolves around the personal lives of the players. And just like any good dramatic series, anything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Each episode is a self contained story that focuses on some aspect of the players' lives and how it effects the team's chemistry on the field and in the locker room. Naturally, there are threads that tie the entire season together into a complete package and gives the series a nice cohesive feel.
The best of these ongoing threads is the continuing feud between seasoned veteran Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby) and the rookie running back who stole his position, Demetrius "DH" Harris (Omar Gooding). Throughout the season I found myself pulling for Taylor to get his job back primarily because I didn't like Harris or the owner, Willbanks (Bruce Gray), who constantly pampers the rookie no matter what trouble the drug addict gets into.
I was surprised at how much I found myself caring about these characters. Despite the sensationalized problems, I was riveted by the situations, eager to see what happens. Sure, the show has some clichéd characters, such as the ladies man for a quarterback (Christopher Wiehl), and some of the episodes try to be too dramatic, but these bumps in the road rarely took my mind out of the show. Even after I noticed how ridiculous some of it could be, I still found myself immersed in the characters.
The situations that effected the group as a team were definitely the highlight of this series. Whether that be the coach (Anthony John Denison) finding out he has cancer or Kelvin "Buffalo" James (Marcello Thadford) discovering his weight might be harmful to his health, these were the things that created tension and excitement for the show. Some of the other situations, like Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) falling in love, were a bit too emotional and sappy for me. However, while some of these plot points didn't create the thrill the rest did, they actually helped develop the character, which ended up intensifying the other situations.
The National Football League put a lot of pressure on Disney to cancel this show and that's exactly what happened. This series didn't get the ax because it's not good enough, but because NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other important people in the league didn't like the idea of a dramatic television series that shed light on the darker side of the sport. And Playmakers certainly does that. In 11 episodes, the show explores drug use, domestic violence, maternity suits, player/coach disagreements, the press, homosexuality, murder, friendship, money, injuries, and so much more. If it's been a headline in the last few years, it's in the show. Sure, there's no way one team could face so many problems in one season, but it's easy to get wrapped up in the group dynamic and suspend your disbelief long enough to enjoy what happens.
This show isn't without its problems. Some of the acting is sub-par, the actors are obviously too small to play a down in professional football, and some of the situations really stretch credibility. Yet even with these shortcomings, I found myself drawn into the show and eagerly looking forward to what happens next. The final episode, while a decent wrap up, feels as if it the series was cut before its time, so I for one am hoping it makes a triumphant return on another network so it can start where it left off.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents Playmakers in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image's clarity won't exactly make you feel as if you're in the locker room, but it looks pretty damn good just the same. The image is sharp with good depth throughout, and there are very few instances of dirt or artifacting. But the highlight of the presentation has to be the colors, which are bright and vibrant. Shadows and skin tones look spot on, too. This is a very good transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is on par with the video quality. Voices are clear throughout the series, which is key for the more dramatic scenes. While you won't exactly feel enveloped in the action, rears are used nicely (generally for on-the-field action and the music) and the flow between sound fields seems natural. The hard hitting does offer a nice kick, the music is what really shines. The deep bass and the use of the rears allows the music to had a layer of tension to the dark situations on the screen.
THE BONUS FEATURES
I wasn't expecting much in the way of extras from this set so I wasn't let down when I watched them all and discovered that they are all pretty tame by most standards. The highlight is easily the pilot episode commentary by the show's creator, John Eisendrath. Although he gives a few key insights into the making of the show, he never discusses the dirt: I wanted to hear more about the NFL's reaction to the show, or perhaps real life headlines that correspond to the situations in the show. As it stands, the commentary is enjoyable enough, but it's a little too technical. It's not personal enough. Plus, Eisendrath's delivery is slow at times, which makes his discussions a bit too drab.
The other bonus features are found on the third disc. On Set With Snoop Dogg is a 4-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with interview snippets with the famous rapper-turned-actor and a few members of the crew who have nothing but accolades for the man. The Playmakers Behind-The-Scenes Featurette is a little longer piece that focuses on the main cast and how enjoyable they are to work with. Neither of these bonus items grabbed my attention or shared any real valuable information.
Playmakers is a series that deserved to stay on the air. It's a dramatic, if not a bit sensationalized, look at professional football that tackles many of the difficult issues that pop up in the media all the time. This three disc set includes all 11 episodes of the series with good audio and video quality. Even without a lot of special features, this one is easy to recommend.