ESPN boots one through the uprights with “Playmakers,” the sports net’s first original scripted series. Show helps bridge the divide between sports fans and drama lovers in its exploration of football players’ personal lives and the psychological elements of the game, though it veers dangerously close to chick flick territory in some ways. Consider it a baby step in the network’s bid to attract viewers outside its core audience.
Series creator John Eisendrath, with college gridiron experience and writing credentials on “Alias” and “Felicity,” goes after typical issues — drugs, contracts, competitive motivation. And while the appealing ensemble cast may not debunk any long-held characterizations of pro footballers, they do offer a few new insights — most notably that some players are in it for the unbridled brutality.
Jason Matthew Smith stars as Eric Olczyk, a tough linebacker whose psychological game is severely thrown off when he critically injures a rival team’s quarterback. Olczyk can’t shake the experience and finds himself conferring with his psychiatrist more than his coach. His breakthrough comes when he realizes that he hates football but has made it this far because it serves as an outlet for years of pent-up rage.
Olczyk’s friend and teammate Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby) loves the game, but a knee injury has sidelined his career as a running back and left the door open for hotshot newcomer Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding). The talented Harris scores the instant fame and all the perks that come with it, but he abuses drugs, women and basically any rules regarding the conduct of team members. While his teammates are practicing on the field an hour before game time, Harris can be found picking up remnants of cocaine off the car upholstery.
Coach Mike George (Tony Denison) would rather play Taylor than the unreliable Harris, but the team owner, who looks a lot like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, has him over a barrel. His contract is up for negotiation, and there’s a rumor (or is it fact?) that he has some very serious health issues.
Pilot sets up several intriguing story arcs, capitalizing on the inherent drama of the game, and the cast fleshes out the ideas nicely.
Hornsby deftly conveys the strange dichotomy that is the fierceness and vulnerability of an aging player. Denison, a reliable character actor, so far avoids the saintly coach routine and the ruthless win-at-all-costs characterization.
Director Scott Brazil (“The Shield,” “CSI: Miami”) is a smart choice for the pilot seg. His frenetic camera work, paired with Stephen Lawrence’s sharp editing and host of rap songs, mimics the high-voltage energy of a big game.