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TELEVISION REVIEW

In offering 'Playmakers,' ESPN tries a new play

New series, which has the feel of a soap opera, represents a desire to offer viewers a little more entertainment.

August 26, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

Call it "As the Running Back Turns."

That's what the premiere of ESPN's first scripted dramatic series, "Playmakers," feels like: a soap opera for football-loving, beer-swilling, cardiac-arresting Superfans.

Sadly for them, there is no sign of Mike Ditka tonight. But because this look behind the scenes of a fictional pro football team is an attempt by ESPN to appeal to "younger and casual sports fans," that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, it's just the latest effort to realize the initial concept of an Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. Over the years, ESPN has emphasized the latter largely to the exclusion of the former, unless you consider the "SportsCenter" highlight jockeys to be your primary source of entertainment.

(Yes, ESPN did have that expletive-laden movie last year about volatile Indiana basketball Coach Bob Knight, but everyone would just as soon forget it. Its second film, "The Junction Boys," fared better but still faltered.)

In any event, if you're scoring at home, here's the skinny: Despite some terribly weak elements, the pilot episode of "Playmakers" manages to be engaging. It may not have the drama of a real-life game or the sophistication of, say, "Law & Order," but it's a nice break from ESPN's cavalcade of hard tackles, home runs and hat tricks.

Here, the game is really beside the point, even as the fictional Cougars (from some unidentified town, playing in a league that's close to but isn't the NFL) prepare to play "the biggest game of the year." Instead, the show is about the demons that beset virtually every character with a speaking part.

There's Leon Taylor, an aging veteran played by Russell Hornsby, who's trying to come back after an injury; Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding), the young-punk running back who's stolen Leon's job and is breaking all the rules; Kevin James (Marcello Thedford), an offensive tackle who is D.H.'s buddy/enabler; Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith), a linebacker who doubts his will to play after he delivers a paralyzing hit; and Mike George (Tony Denison), the head coach who won't admit he could be seriously ill. Later episodes will feature Christopher Wiehl as a star quarterback having his first poor season.

Suffice it to say that the team psychologist has his hands full with this bunch. Luckily for him, only Olczyk is seeking counseling, and as it turns out, many of the player's problems stem from his uncaring father. Whoa, talk about being blindsided.

That scenario is only slightly less trite than the conflict between Leon and D.H., who face off against each other in a tense footrace.

Such uninspired material undermines some fine acting from the ensemble cast. Nor does it help matters that the characters often lapse into inner monologues in the second person. "You play the game for free, but you don't.... It's incredible the way you glide and weave," Leon says at one point.

If that sounds as though it could be in a soft-drink or athletic-shoe commercial, it's nothing compared with the prominently placed Champion and Under Armour logos on the actors' clothing. So while ESPN touts that tonight's premiere will be shown without breaks for advertising, it's not exactly commercial-free.

You also have to wonder whether the show will be able to sustain itself over the 11-episode run that roughly coincides with the upcoming NFL season and how well it will be able to draw viewers away from broadcast fare such as Fox's "The O.C." or NBC's "Dog Eat Dog." Traditionally, sports dramas have done poorly on TV (anyone remember "Bay City Blues"?).

That ESPN is trying to attract younger viewers is also a bit of a head-scratcher, considering the mature language and subject matter.

For all its faults, though, "Playmakers" has its guilty pleasures: wild off-the-field antics, a pulsating soundtrack and quick-cut camera work. In a way, it's music video meets sports meets soap opera. The only thing missing is a cliffhanger to make you tune in next week. Lucky for ESPN, there's always another "SportsCenter" to lure viewers back.

*

`Playmakers'

Where: ESPN

When: 6 tonight; repeats at 7 and 9

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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