"This old lady came up to me and she asked me if I was a Nimrod...she was pretty happy that she met me."
- Nathan Vestich
If Hoosiers, Friday Night Lights and Fargo all decided to have a documentary baby together, it would probably look something like Nimrod Nation, an eight-episode, four-hour series that originally aired on The Sundance Channel in 2007.
Set in Watersmeet--a small, snowy town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan--the series chronicles the 2005-06 season of the Nimrods, the boys basketball team at Watersmeet Township School that won the district, regional and U.P. Class 'D' championship the year before. But the series is only partly about basketball, focusing just as much on life in a town seemingly frozen in time--one where families and friends hunt and ice fish together on a daily basis, and TV use is scarce.
The K-12 school has 240 kids, with 79 high school students and 20 graduating seniors. This is one of those towns where everyone knows each other, and many graduates stay in town to raise their families. The series has no narrator, and spends just as much time talking to the townsfolk as it does to the students. It unfolds slowly, with minor stories sidetracking us in each episode as the town gears up for each game.
At the center of it all is George Peterson III, the varsity coach who is also the school's principal, athletic director...and just about everything else, including the commissioner for the county. His son (George IV) is one of three players the series focuses on ("It's difficult to coach your son, to stay fair, because you expect more," says the father. "I get on him more than I get on the other kids.") He is joined by fellow senior Nathan Vestich, a sometimes hot-headed player and the student council president; and junior Brian Aimsback, a quiet, talented shooter who lives with his grandmother and dates senior Hope Yablonski, who aches to get out of Watersmeet ("I don't like this town"). We also meet the copious Zelinski family, a huge clan that accounts for much of the series' moments off the court.
Aimsback accounts for one of the show's most intriguing stories. His grandmother perceives inequitable recognition of Brian's basketball accomplishments, which she attributes to his Native American culture. It's a divide that some townspeople frequently address: "When I was raised in this town, you hung out with a Native and it was like you were no good. I think over the years it's gotten worse," says Hope's mother Sandy Smetak. Even Aimsback struggles with the distance he has placed between himself and his heritage. "There's more to you than just shooting a basketball," advises a Chippewa tribal member.
Drama is also aptly created in theater class, with teacher Suzanne Zelinski getting frustrated with the players' lack of interest: "I would like to be able to give the kids in Watersmeet another perspective on culture." Zelinski also cares for her niece, whose pregnancy accounts for one of the show's more touching stories. Repeatedly popping up is "The Breakfast Club", a group of five old timers who talk about the team and plenty of other issues in a diner (kind of like a non-vulgar Reservoir Dogs), serving as a connecting thread for the stories. Through them we get a sense of the town's team pride--and the pressure it places on the kids. The basketball games provide the show's most thrilling moments, with some tight finishes sure to keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Nature is another vital element of the series--frequent shots of breathtaking landscapes are unforgettable--providing an outlet for families to bond. There's plenty of hunting, and ardent animal lovers may have to look away a few times--especially during one unintentionally funny/sad scene involving a giant pig and a malfunctioning gun (I have a pretty sick sense of humor, and even I was a tad disturbed).
The show's strength is the "little moments" that speak to the joy of friends and family. Many scenes speak to the essence of the show, getting to the heart of what's really important in life: the look of a father's face as he watches his daughter figure skate, the happiness of a wood carver who presents a gift to the student body, George III playing a pickup game with his "old man", a coach's concerned visit to a student's house, an emotional locker room speech, and Smetak expressing her genuine love for Brian ("He is a big part of my life, and no matter down the road if they're not together, he is still part of the family.").
There's also some fantastic moments of humor hidden. Some quotes are priceless:
It takes a few episodes to get into the groove of the show's tone. Initially, some of the camera confessionals seem a little too perfect, a tad staged. But once you really get to know these people, you get the sense that what you see is what you get. My biggest gripe was with the soundtrack. Music accompanies a lot of the footage--sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. With gentle piano chords and what sounds like accordion accompaniment, it's sometimes a little too obvious with its "Aw, shucks! Aren't these people so simple and quant?!" manipulation. It's particularly distracting when placed with some of the game footage, a real mismatch of sight and sound.
- Student, at Homecoming Week meeting: "Nathan, some people got that Backwards and Inside Out Day mixed up last year."
- Jeff Zelinski, watching his daughter skin a deer: "She wants to be a doctor, so she's just knife happy."
- Nathan's friend, looking at the aftermath of an ex-girlfriend's rage: "At least she didn't crack the windshield on your driver's side..."
- Jeff, Take 2: "You know, I went to the prom two years in a row, and every girl I took to the prom was pregnant."
But the material here is so engaging and strong, you'll get used to the music--and might even come around to liking it. That's a testament to the power of the series: Nimrod Nation is glorious proof that slow and simple wins the race, something all of us can learn from.
For a good read about the series, check out this article from News of the North. While there are no major spoilers, you might want to read it after watching the show.
All eight episodes (each about 27 minutes in length, spread over two discs) are presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's a relatively solid effort, with most colors and flesh tones looking natural. Some darker scenes suffer from over-saturated colors, but that's minimal.
Also satisfactory is the 2.0 surround sound. I never had a problem hearing what was being said, although a very brief sound fade occurred on Episode 1 (the discs used for this review were screeners, so it's likely that was a fluke).
Sadly, we just get one: an interview with executive producer Brett Morgen (6:26), who talks about how he was first introduced to Watersmeet when he filed Nimrod commercials for ESPN in 2003. He talks about the recurring themes in the series, and the timelessness of the town, "kind of a last frontier...they have a more primitive form of life." Morgan notes it was challenging integrating the basketball footage into the rest of the episodes, as it contradicted the flavor of the "anti-reality", "anti-cathartic" series. It's a short but interesting interview, although it seems like there could have been more extras included--if nothing else, brief updates on some of the show's subjects.
Nothing flashy, just a sweet, slow and steady documentary about a way of life you might not know still existed. Set in a unique area, Nimrod Nation is a poignant look at a basketball team and the small town life that surrounds it. But sport is secondary to the real essence of this memorable, reflective trip, as its themes that touch upon the importance of family and friends are universal truths we can all relate to. Recommended.