Allow me to use this week’s edition of TV Week in Review to show my appreciation for a less-heralded brand of television entertainment. What stuck out on the tube this week was entertainment based in reality. No, not that kind of reality. Real reality. Heck, I’ll just say it.
I love documentaries. Always have, always will. Documentaries are a visual guide for the lazy lovers of non-fiction. Since I’m a lazy lover of non-fiction, and I don’t read it nearly as much as I should, I’ve always been drawn to documentaries. Whether it’s an episode of “True Lif” on MTV or Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” I believe a good documentary is as entertaining as a good scripted drama. In fact, they’re often better because the drama is real.
So naturally, when I heard ESPN was bringing 30 original documentaries from 30 talented filmmakers in honor of their 30th anniversary, I was pretty excited. Love sports. Love docs. Love good filmmaking. It seemed like a natural love affair. Add in the ingenious ESPN “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons as the mastermind behind the project and I bought into it from the beginning.
After having watched the first three documentaries, my optimism and high expectations were realized and rewarded. Unlike ESPN’s last celebration of its anniversary, there has been nothing hokey about “30 for 30.” It’s just been enjoyable documentaries from talented filmmakers about stories which haven’t been broached one hundred times.
My favorite was “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” It retells the story of an upstart spring football league established in the early 1980s that takes on the mighty NFL. “Small Potatoes” relieves the league’s rise, its prominence, its ultimate demise and lasting legacy. It also perfectly portrays the league’s villain (Mr. “You’re Fired” himself, Donald Trump).
Directed and narrated by Mike Tollin, who had first-hand experience in the USFL as its film guy, “Small Potatoes” has a striking amount of depth. One reason I liked it better than the first two “30 for 30” documentaries, (“The Band That Wouldn’t Die” and “King’s Ransom” “" both pretty good in their own right), was its breadth of interviews. Tollin talked to an impressive cast of characters ranging from Keith Jackson to Burt Reynolds. It really gave a first-hand impression of what it was like to be there at the time.
All in all, the documentary did a great job of depicting the USFL’s relevance to pro football. This was a league that had Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Hershel Walker, Doug Flutie, Reggie White, Anthony Carter and many other future NFL stars. It was a league that introduced 2-point conversions, instant replay and post-TD celebration pizzazz. Furthermore, in terms of storyline development, Tollin pointedly gets to the reasons behind the league’s quick rise and fall.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Tollin, who directed the remarkable “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream” documentary back in the mid-1990s, could put together such an impressive piece. Yet, to do it in a mere 52 minutes is nothing short of extraordinary. If the “30 for 30” series continues with this kind of work, I’ll be hoping for more ESPN-based celebrations in the future.
TV Quick Hits of the Week
South Park: “W.T.F.”
“South Park” is one of those shows that can baffle you, make you cry tears of laughter and then do both at the same time. This is episode does the latter. The boys find themselves wanting to be wrestlers after attending a WWE event. When they go and try out for the school’s wrestling team, they find out that “real” wrestling is homoerotic and weird. Instead, they make up their own faux-WWE (aptly titled Wrestling Takedown Federation”¦or W.T.F.) with ridiculous storylines involving aborted babies. Of course, their soap opera storylines attract a wide audience of dumb rednecks who think it’s all real. The episode takes a bizarre twist as the boys put on a Broadway-like production, with very little wrestling mixed in, for a bunch of dumb hillbillies. Elsewhere, the rejected amateur wrestling coach goes on a crusade to prove his “wrasslin'” is the real one. If it sounds silly, it is. But these are the kinds of “South Park” episodes I love the most.
The Big Bang Theory: “The Creepy Candy Corollary”
First off, am I the only person in the world that didn’t know Wil Wheaton from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was Gordie Lachance from “Stand By M”? As a fan of both the show and that movie, I’m really disappointed in myself. Anyway, this episode saw Sheldon trying to exact revenge on a fictionalized, evil version of Wil Wheaton. Jim Parsons’ angry, angsty and comic-book-like actions as Sheldon leading up to the confrontation with Wheaton carried this episode. Also, I’m still stuck on his hilarious “four napkin rul” at the table with Leonard. Priceless. The side plot had Penny setting up Wolowitz with one of her friends in a run-of-the-mill storyline.
30 Rock: “Into the Crevass”
I’m not sure how I feel about “30 Rock.” I watch it and often find myself laughing and enjoying its snarky, clever humor. However, I read its constantly glowing reviews, watch it collect a bunch of Emmy awards and start to think it gets way too much credit. It’s funny, it’s cleverly written “" it’s just not that good. This week was a great example. The storylines weren’t compelling, nor were the characters. That’s a huge part of scripted TV. “Into the Crevass” relied on a bunch of funny one-liners (ala Family Guy). Sometimes I feel like this show would be better off running 23 minutes of straight one-liners and quick wit rather than come up some with a forced, lame storyline.