Marquette Wire

Football series gets stopped at goal line

Libby Fry

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Following in the cleats of “Any Given Sunday,” ESPN takes its first shot at a dramatic series with “Playmakers” (8 p.m., Tuesdays, ESPN). While a cut above previous ESPN attempts at original programming, “Playmakers” is still a few pieces away from being a true contender.

The show leans heavily on the off-field lives of the players for the fictional Cougars, who play in a fictional town that looks a lot like Los Angeles. The team is joined in progress of a 2-3 season and then all the little — and big — problems of the star players begin to unravel.

The team’s young running back Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding) is crazy talented, but also happens to be a pretty heavy crack addict, hangs out with a posse that would make Allen Iverson cringe, parties every night and engages in some random sex.

All this could open the door for former starter Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), who lost his spot after a bad injury. Unfortunately, Leon’s kind of tied up with steroids and an affair with a reporter while trying to maintain a happy family life.

Psychoses and addiction seem to plague the other featured players as well. Linebacker Eric Olcyzk (Jason Matthew Smith) is guilt-ridden about paralyzing another player and has even deeper daddy issues. Derek McConnell (Christopher Wiehl) is using painkillers to keep his quarterback job and even the coach (Tony Denison) has some kind of ailment.

Then there’s still the game to play. Fortunately the game looks quite nice. By using a lot of close shots and surprising the audience when hits come, the football scenes are pretty impressive, especially for ESPN’s maiden drama series effort.

The attention to detail and focus on the game of football is the biggest selling point for the show. Die-hard sports fans that chided “Sports Night” for its lack of actual sports will be satisfied by “Playmakers.” In addition to the great football scenes, most of the off-field activities still boil down to their on-field ramifications. Sure Harris is snorting crack a few hours before kick-off, but it still affects the game.

But that off-field activity does get a little grating. First, beware that ESPN has earned its TV-MA for the show. There’s more than a handful of bare bums, coarse language and drug taking in the first two episodes, and it’s unlikely to slow down.

And while watching it may be hard, understanding the actions are even harder. Yes, it’s admirable to show the faults of athletes, but does the Cougar backfield have to have more subplots than a soap opera? Creator John Eisendrath does a good job at containing the main action within a few characters, but that causes their problems to seem ludicrously numerous.

Also ludicrously numerous are the references to the off-field problems. Olcyzk has flashbacks during every moment he’s on screen, the drug use is just rampant and over the top, and Harris’ solution to passing a drug test is truly disturbing. “Playmakers” has all the subtlety of a Warren Sapp sack.

While every one of the non-featured characters seem fake or unreal and the coach over dramatizes every situation, there is a solid base to work with. The highlight is Gooding, younger brother of Cuba, who learned a thing or two about being a footballer from his brother. He puts a good amount of heart into his over-addicted character and — despite his many faults — he still manages to create a character the audience can get behind.

Given a whole season to work with, “Playmakers” could be a gripping drama with people caring about what happens to the Cougars. But there’s a lot of tough visuals and heavy-handed story-telling that comes along with it. For now, “Playmakers” is for die-hard pigskin fans only.

Grade: C

Fueding running backs Leon Talor (Russel Hornsby), left, and Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding) take thier arguments to the sidelines in “Playamakers.”,”Matthew T. Olson”

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