Review: ‘Power Plays’

Nicholas Kent, producer of BBC's 1990 "Naked Hollywood" series, returns with a fascinating, six-hour study of American sports commercialism and, by extension , what's happening to other U.S. businesses and professions. Unsparing, insightful, at times wryly amusing, "Power Plays" cunningly eyeballs the American way with a tossed ball or a thrown punch; the cumulative effect stings.

Nicholas Kent, producer of BBC’s 1990 “Naked Hollywood” series, returns with a fascinating, six-hour study of American sports commercialism and, by extension , what’s happening to other U.S. businesses and professions. Unsparing, insightful, at times wryly amusing, “Power Plays” cunningly eyeballs the American way with a tossed ball or a thrown punch; the cumulative effect stings.

Played off in batches of two programs per night, episodes explore commercial aspects of basketball, boxing, football, baseball and hockey. Newsmen, managers, agents, columnists, owners, promoters and jocks reflect on what they’ve seen; Superhero may sport a gold belt, but his handlers are in the green.

A riveting essay on basketball’s power structure eyes the success of Michael Jordan — he’s a conglomerate unto himself — and the hopes of West Chi youth Michael Hermon, who’s got an eye on the prize as “a way out.”

Hockey is borrowing basketball’s star system, trying to play down blood on the ice and play up blade showbiz, but the docu does little to demonstrate prospects.

A minor-league baseball club owner, Van Schley of the small, gutsy Salt Lake City Trappers, fostered baseball in the mode of the ’30s and ’40s, with players making $ 600 to $ 700 a month, signing programs for fans in the bleachers, busing overnight for out-of-town games. Newcomer Brian Huey’s intro to the mound while the other Trappers size up the rookie’s perf becomes high drama, but it’s a temporary high: Minor leagues are in the path of a stampede.

The conglomerates are at bat. Issues are players’ salaries, attendance, TV revenue drying up, franchise values.

A Vegas world-heavyweight bout and its trappings are compared with the match in the East of an up-and-coming pugilist, whose energetic promoter introduces his fighter to a placid Muhammad Ali. Ali, touching the fighter’s dreadlocks, reportedly says, “If I’d fought you I’d have called you ‘pretty lady.’ ” The manager, latching onto Ali’s name, tries to profit from the quote.

College footballers are wooed by agents who, lawyer Ed King warns in a vast generalization, are the reason pro players lose their money and careers. An agent woos a gridman, schmoozes with the player’s family until it’s a done deal. The agent becomes a hero — and makes a bundle.

The pigskin parade traces the rise and painful fall of the Dallas Cowboys’ celebrated Tom Landry. A portrait of Landry’s hometown Mission, and of Mission High, reveals what real Texas fever is. Games are begun with Christian prayers, seguing into bodies crashing into one other as the soundtrack accents the impact.

The videotape work, incisively using slo-mo to make points, is scrumptious, the editing consummate. Barrington Pheloung’s supportive score is superbly attuned to the action. If some interviewees are too conspicuously posed, if artsy angles intrude in some segs, or if some conclusions overreach, the saga’s impact still remains.

Some items are dated (docu was made in 1992, with a Jordan interview and some Cowboys info added in ’93), but overall production looms impressively. “Power Plays” demonstrates that the watchers — fans, TV viewers — have a single function: Supply the cash.

Power Plays

Mon. (7), Wed. (9), 9-11 p.m., PBS

Production

Taped by Oxford TV Co., KCET/L.A., ITEL and Channel 4. Exec producers, Andy Paterson (Oxford TV), Joyce Campbell (KCET); producer, Nicholas Kent; directors, Nick Read ("Be Like Mike,""Home of the Brave,""Fields of Blood" episodes), Anand Tucker ("Welcome to the Sewer,""The Big Pitch,""Fields of Blood" episodes).

Crew

Music, Barrington Pheloung.
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