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White Shadow: The Complete First Season, The

Fox // Unrated // November 8, 2005
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Scott Weinberg | posted November 14, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Series

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 season, 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 this season was produced in 1978.)

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, teenage drinking, sex & STDs, 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 season comes packed with a variety of colorful and ever-changing challenges and struggles. 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 15 episodes from The White Shadow's first season are presented in a four-disc set, and yes, that means the DVDs are dual-sided. Episodes are as follows:

Disc 1a

Pilot -- When a serious knee injury forces Ken Reeves to quit playing professional basketball, an old friend offers him a basketball coaching job in Los Angeles at an inner-city high school. (11/27/78)

Here's Mud in Your Eye -- Coach Reeves needs the team's help after one of its players refuses to admit that his drinking problem has gotten out of control. (12/04/78)

Disc 1b

The Offer -- Reeves is tempted after a beautiful newswoman takes an interest in him and then her boss offers him a high-paying sports commentator job. (12/11/78)

Bonus Baby -- After winning the Most Valuable Player trophy, Coolidge is easily seduced by a young woman who says a sports agent is interested in promoting his career. (12/25/78)

Disc 2a

Pregnant Pause -- One of the team's best players is shocked after his girlfriend tells him she's pregnant and he has to quit school and get a job so they can get married. (01/01/79)

Wanna Bet? -- Coach Reeves finds himself involved in burglary, bookies and murder after he helps an amazing young basketball player enroll at Carver High and join the team. (01/08/79)

Disc 2b

That Old Gang of Mine -- When Gomez is kicked off the team due to poor grades, he starts hanging out with the Aztecs, a violent Chicano street gang he used to belong to. (01/15/79)

Just One of the Boys -- Coach Reeves struggles with a sensitive situation after word leaks out that a new team member transferred to Carver High to escape rumors that he's a homosexual. (01/27/79)

Disc 3a

Airball -- The team's excitement over being invited to compete in a basketball tournament is overshadowed when the plane they're on develops mechanical trouble. (02/03/79)

We're in the Money -- When the team goes to Las Vegas to play in a tournament, they secretly take a pool of money collected from the students so they can gamble and return home with a fortune. (02/10/79)

Disc 3b

Spare the Rod -- Coach Reeves feels guilty after an arrogant and unruly student takes a swing at him, and in an act of self-defense, he swings back and punches the boy out. (02/17/79)

The Great White Dope -- The coach tries to help Salami after the boy gets involved with bar fighting and says that boxing, not basketball, is the key to his future. (02/24/79)

Disc 4a

Mainstream -- It's bad enough the team is in a slump, but then Coach Reeves learns he has to participate in the "Mainstream" program, which places an autistic boy on the team. (03/05/79)

Little Orphan Abner -- When Goldstein's grandparent is hospitalized, Coach Reeves asks the team to check in on their teammate, but they end up hurting him instead of helping him. (03/26/79)

Disc 4b

LeGrand Finale -- When the team forms a singing group, they decide not to include Thorpe because he's dating a white girl with a bad reputation around school. (04/09/79)

(Episode synopses courtesy of the Fox DVD cases.)

The DVD

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 1978, don't forget. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.

Extras: Episode 1 ("Pilot") has an audio commentary with producer Mark Tinker and director Jackie Cooper, while episode 12 ("The Great White Dope") has one with actors Ken Howard & Timothy Van Patten. Both commentaries are nostalgic and resoundingly praise-heavy, but there's lots of background info offered for the Shadow-fans.

Also, on disc 4b, you'll find a 9.5-minute featurette entitled More Than Basketball that features all-new interview segments with Ken Howard, Mark Tinker, Timothy Van Patten, and Jackie Cooper. The four look back fondly on the somewhat groundbreaking series, and offer some a few extra tidbits aside from the commentary chatter.

Final Thoughts

The kids loved the basketball and the adults dug the envelope-pushing social issues. Ken Howard delivered a charmingly cranky hero figure, and series runner Bruce Paltrow kept a few solid surprises up his sleeve. 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.

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