(Note: A large percentage of what you'll find below has been re-printed from my review of The White Shadow - Season 1, but not all of it. You'll just have to read it to find the new stuff!)
Employing the "no-bullshit teacher at an inner city" gimmick long before the modern templates of Lean On Me and Dangerous Minds were around, 1978's The White Shadow struck enough of a chord with viewers to warrant a full three-season run. For fans of the basketball-centric high school drama, those three seasons were simply not enough, but at least those supporters will be able to kick back and enjoy their old favorite through the magic of DVD. (Well, the first two seasons, anyway.)
Ken Howard stars as Coach Ken Reeves, a former NBA pro whose bum knee forced an early retirement. Offered the rather unglamorous job of high school coach to a bunch of inner-city misfits, Reeves rises to the task using his own patented brands of hard work, rough talk, and tough love. Of course the Carver High kids will initially reject the guy, and of course they'll (slowly) come around and embrace their new teacher. And these kids are going to need Reeves on their side, because their first season's exploits are absolutely riddled with temptations, traps, and troubles.
Although many of the episodes are entirely formulaic and frequently rather predictable, there's a rough-hewn toughness to the program that indicates a bold and sincere effort beneath the surface. Executive producer Bruce Paltrow (yes, the late father of Ms. Gwyneth) was clearly interested in tackling some hot-button issues, and The White Shadow did not shy away from stories full of anger, intolerance, and racism. The messages were always kept on a "TV-safe" level, but many of them were also pretty daring. (Especially considering that the season was produced in the late 1970s.)
As you might expect from a well-intentioned series that hoped to run for a few years, the characters and the social issues were as important as the next basketball game. Drug abuse, institutionalized racism, sex education, illiteracy, and gang violence were only a few of the issues tackled here, and while The White Shadow might have simplified its tragedies for a family-friendly presentation, it never stooped to outright preaching or whiny platitudes. Plus it wasn't all doom & gloom; Coach Reeves would counsel his charges on a variety of topics ... although his advice would quite often fall on deaf ears (until the Act III revelations were made, that is).
Considered by many to be one of network TV's finest sports-related series, The White Shadow is more than a little dated and antiquated by now, but there's still some fun to be had here, plus the first two seasons come packed with a variety of colorful and ever-changing challenges and struggles. (Plus there's some basketball.) Nominated for four Emmys over its three-season run (and winner of one), The White Shadow isn't the newest or flashiest sports-centric high school drama you'll ever see, but I found it just as much fun this afternoon as it was 20-some years ago. I'll take three random episodes of The White Shadow over movies like Dangerous Minds and Rebound any day.
(One interesting piece of trivia: Three of the Carver High athletes would go on to become successful directors: Thomas Carter (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter), Kevin Hooks (Passenger 57, 24, Lost), and Timothy Van Patten (The Sopranos, Deadwood).)
The 24 episodes from The White Shadow's second season are presented in a four-disc set, and yes, that means the DVDs are dual-sided. Episodes are as follows:
On the Line -- The coach and team regret giving a journalism student permission to write a series about the basketball for the school paper. (09/17/79)
Albert Hodges -- An embittered black youth causes trouble among the basketball team players when he insinuates that Coach Reeves is a racist. (09/24/79)
Cross-Town Hustle -- Believing the coach is picking on him, Milton Reese is an easy mark when a fast-talking coach from a rival school tries to get him to transfer. (10/01/79)
Sudden Death -- Reeves is devastated when a freshman he actively encouraged to join the basketball team drops dead during a practice session. (10/08/79)
A Silent Cheer -- The coach and one of his players share the painful realization that their playing "glory days" are truly over and it's time to move on. (10/15/79)
No Place Like Home -- After Coolidge's apartment building burns down, Coach Reeves lets him stay at his apartment for a few days - a decision he quickly comes to regret.
Globetrotters -- The team's winning streak has turned them into insufferable egotists, so Coach Reeves secretly enlists the aid of the Harlem Globetrotters. (11/05/79)
Me? -- The coach isn't looking forward to teaching a health class on sex education, but he soon realizes it's a good thing he did. (11/12/79)
Needle -- The coach tries to stop Hayward from exacting revenge on the drug pusher who sold a fatal dose of heroin to Hayward's 15-year-old cousin. (11/26/79)
Sliding By -- Coach Reeves is thrilled when a high school basketball star transfers to Carver High, until he learns that the boy is illiterate. (12/03/79)
Delores, Of Course -- Jackson is so happy that his former girlfriend is back that he asks her to marry him, totally unaware that she is now employed in the world's oldest profession. (12/08/79)
A Christmas Present -- As the team prepares for their big holiday party and Sybil happily reconciles with her husband, Coach Reeves finds himself facing Christmas Eve alone. (12/25/79)
Feeling No Pain -- When the coach tries to legally help one of his players get some prescription painkillers, his good intentions backfire. (01/01/80)
Artist -- Thorpe is torn between his love for art and his father's belief that a basketball scholarship is his son's only ticket out of the ghetto. (01/08/80)
Salami's Affair -- In order to improve his grades and not be dropped from the team, Salami agrees to be tutored in history - an arrangement that quickly leads to other things. (01/15/80)
Links -- Reeves is invited to bring some of the basketball team to a local country club, but when they show up, they're told "blacks are not allowed." (01/22/80)
The Stripper -- If Reeves is shocked when his girlfriend takes him to a strip joint, he's floored when she suddenly appears onstage as the club's most popular stripper. (01/29/80)
Gonna Fly Now -- The coach enlists the help of a female police narcotics officer after it becomes clear that someone around school is selling "Angel Dust" to the students. (02/05/80)
Out at Home -- Coach Reeves is dismayed after he's promoted to Athletic Director, a position that the school's baseball coach desperately wanted. (02/19/80)
The Russians Are Coming -- Coach Reeves gets involved in a bit of international intrigue after a player from the Soviet Union basketball team asks for help in defecting to the United States. (02/26/80)
The Hitter -- Coach Reeves tries to help Go-Go after the young man repeatedly shows up at school with bruises that indicate he's being beaten at home. (03/04/80)
The Death of Me Yet -- Coach Reeves and the team's elation at qualifying to compete in the big city championship game is overshadowed by a tragedy. (03/11/80)
Coolidge Goes Hollywood -- Coolidge quickly shuns his coach and friends after the director of a TV series about black students offers him a weekly part on the show. (03/18/80)
A Few Good Men -- As another school year comes to and end, Coach Reeves and team members make summer plans and the seniors consider life after high school. (04/01/80)
Video: The episodes are presented in their original full frame format. Picture quality is passable, at best, as the episodes are all but oozing with fuzzy ol' grain deposits.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which does the job just fine. It's a TV show from 1979, don't forget. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
A trio of audio commentaries are spread across the collection: Disc 2, Episode 1 (Globetrotters) features commentary from actor Kevin Hooks, Byron Stewart, Erik Kirkpatrick, and Ira Augustain; Disc 2, Episode 3 (Needle) comes with commentary by episode director Victor Lobl; Disc 4, episode 4 (The Death of Me Yet) has commentary from episode writer Marc Rubin.
You'll also find three featurettes, the first one on disc 3 and the remaining pair on disc 4:
The Shadow of Bruce Paltrow is a classy 18-minute featurette about the very well-admired producer. Interview participants include daughter Gwyneth Paltrow, wife Blythe Danner, director Victor Lobl, casting director Lori Openden, writer Marc Rubin, secretary Bethany Rooney, producer Mark Tinker, and actors Ken Howard, Ira Augustain, Thomas Carter, Erik Kilpatrick, Kevin Hooks, Larry Flash Jenkins, Byron Stewart, and Timothy Van Patten.
Director's Debut runs about 13 minutes and tells the story of how Thomas Carter went from actor to director, thanks to The White Shadow. Co-stars Kevin Hooks and Timothy Van Patten also caught the directing bug on the series.
"A Series of Memories" Preview is a 4-minute promo for an all-encompassing White Shadow retrospective documentary ... but the fans will have to wait for the Season 3 set to see it!
The White Shadow might look a little quaintly simplistic nowadays, but it still holds up as a brave, entertaining, and well-intentioned piece of network television. And, best of all, the series showed no discernible dip in quality between its first and second seasons.