Does "Real Sports" break new ground? Often. Is it a gloves-off lid-blowing blasting of sports icons and institutions? Occasionally -- but this is one heck of a rookie effort, and the future for the quarterly program (which returns in July, October, and December, and may expand to eight or 12 episodes next year) looks bright.

Does “Real Sports” break new ground? Often. Is it a gloves-off lid-blowing blasting of sports icons and institutions? Occasionally — but this is one heck of a rookie effort, and the future for the quarterly program (which returns in July, October, and December, and may expand to eight or 12 episodes next year) looks bright.

Filmed by HBO Sports. Executive producer, Ross Greenburg; coordinating producer, Kirby Bradley; director, Jeff Winn; editorial consultant, Gary Myers; camera, Jeff Christian, John Slagle; art direction, GT Group; set design, James Fenhagen; music, Ferdinand Jay Smith. “The Uncivil War,” reported by Sonja Steptoe; writer, Ira Berkow; producers, George Roy and Steve Stern. “Rodman,” reported by Jim Lampley; writer, William Rhoden; producer, Julie Anderson. “The American Singapore,” written, reported by Frank Deford; producer, Brien A. McDonald. “Extra Point,” reported by Billy Crystal; field producer, Jonathan Crystal. Host: Bryant Gumbel. When HBO announced last month it would tackle the world of sports in an unprecedented magazine-style format, the cabler gleefully added that the new show would also have unprecedented leeway: HBO has no advertisers to ruffle, and it has no rights-fee deals with major sports leagues.

Gumbel is bolstered by a superb collection of sportswriting and reporting talent, particularly New York Times mainstays William Rhoden and Ira Berkow, author Frank Deford and sportscaster Jim Lampley.

That group, joined by a bunch of other accomplished sports journalists, is the main reason for optimism about the show’s potential.

The opener, “The Uncivil War,” looks into the hateful and seemingly endless labor-management wars surrounding major league baseball. (The piece reviewed was “work in progress”: producers will be editing right up to the April 2 debut.)

Most of the seg is a recap of the dispute’s tangled history. The real eye-openers are interviews with exiled commissioner Fay Vincent and union pioneer Marvin Miller. But good luck finding any real balance within the segment’s rigidly pro-player tone.

A profile of enigmatic Dennis Rodman is a smart and unblinking look at the San Antonio Spurs star rebounder. This is no lionizing of a talented but tragically flawed athlete; it’s a beautiful rendering of Rodman’s bizarre behavior and his obvious compassion, pulled together by writer Rhoden and reporter Lampley, with lots of well-chosen clips.

“The American Singapore” skewers a target that’s been asking for it since the ’30s: The Masters golf tournament –“The last dictatorship in sports,” says writer-reporter Deford, and he shows us why.

No one at the Masters’ home, the Augusta National golf club in Georgia, would talk to Deford, which liberates him to fire away at the tournament’s racist, control-freak atmosphere. This is rich and often stunning stuff.

The show’s “Extra Point” lets Crystal go wild on the topic of counterfeit sports memorabilia. To any fan, it will be a howl, and it’s also howlingly tasteless, which was certainly the idea.

Gumbel throws in a thoughtful if puzzling wrapup editorial in support of boxer Mike Tyson. As a host, there’s no doubt he’s talented and ultra-smooth, but he’s always seemed unctuous and self-satisfied. Still, it’s good to see him kicking around sports again, and it’s even better to see him in a sleek, cutting-edge vehicle like “Real Sports.”

Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

(Sun. (2), 10-11 p.m., HBO)

Production

In the first installment of "Real Sports," HBO Sports has rolled out an impressive, entertaining mix. "Real Sports" bears a strong resemblance to TV-mag legend "60 Minutes" right down to the no-onscreen-titles interview format and the Andy Rooney-style position paper at the close (though Billy Crystal takes it to a hilarious, new level).
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