Cast: Omar Gooding, Russell Hornsby, Jason Matthew Smith
Original Broadcaster: ESPN
Awards: American Film Institute (2003), GLAAD
For fans of: Friday Night Lights, Sports Night, Oz
For a single brilliant season, ESPN channeled their intimate knowledge of the sports world into a dramatic series about football. Playmakers followed the fictional Cougars - part of an unnamed football league that was in-no-way-the-NFL-wink-wink - through a particularly tumultuous season.
Playmakers was notable for its balance of sympathy and gritty realism. It was the latter that led to the show’s swift cancellation, as ESPN came under pressure from the National Football League cancel the show. And certainly the show was as hard-hitting as the sport itself, with episodes that focused on football’s darker side: crippling injuries, domestic abuse, performance-related drugs and homophobia. But it was this honesty - an unvarnished perspective often missing from sports journalism - that also made the show such a dramatic success.
Playmakers showed how the pressure of being a professional athlete forged football players into both heroes and villains; how the constant demand on their bodies, on their public images, creates impossible pressure. The show gave a well-rounded, unblinking view of all the players: greedy, lustful and brutal, but also guilty, wracked with pain and compelled by a ferocious loyalty.
Perhaps the two most compelling characters are rookie running back Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding) and the veteran he replaces, Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby). Harris revels in his newfound celebrity status, but quickly learns the true costs of fame. Taylor wrestles with the frustrations of ageing in a system that ruthlessly casts off those past their 'prime', and desperately clings to his life as a professional player.
Playmakers bravely levied its fiercest criticisms towards a society that puts the players on a pedestal and the institutions that are meant to protect them. Several episodes were devoted to the hypocritical shambles of drug testing, the rabid nature of fandom and the heartless exploitation of the team's owners. There’s a recurring theme of league-endorsed deception and cover-ups, much to the NFL's chagrin. Both the long-term damage of the sport, and the league’s callous disregard for players’ health, also come under the spotlight, and football’s institutionalised homophobia is called out a decade before the drafting of Michael Sam. Set against this is the charismatic portrayal of the players - and their acceptance (willing or begrudging) of the risks of their profession, a profession they've spent every moment of their lives trying to attain.
A provocative, eye-opening show that clearly struck too close to home, Playmakers had one spectacular season, then suffered the inevitable consequences of its unflinching honesty.
Classic episode: “The Piss Man”(Series 1, Number 2) - The episode juggles three perspectives on the same issue: drugs. Taylor wrestles with the temptation of steroids in order to get his position back. Harris hides his recreational drug use from league testing with a series of increasingly elaborate maneuvers. Meanwhile, McConnell, the team’s quarterback, takes anti-inflammatories and painkillers by the fistful - all with the league’s blessing - so he can continue to take the field.
A version of this was first written for 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, edited by Paul Condon (and with contributions from Bex, Anne and me). Playmakers wasn't actually on the list, but I wrote this anyway, just in case, I dunno, Matlock fell off or something. So think of this as the 1002nd show you'll want to squeak in before you're devoured by ozone-frenzied polar bears.