More Jocks, Please
Necessary Roughness and The Game prove that more shows ought to explore the big-money world of pro sports.
Unlike judges and medical examiners, whose eccentricities must be carefully calibrated if the characters are to remain credible, pro athletes can be as weird as writers want them to be. They’re already humanity’s outliers, capable of physical feats the rest of us pay money to watch, so it makes sense that their neuroses would also be larger than life. Metta World Peace, Dennis Rodman, and acid-dropping pitcher Dock Ellis have already prepared us for every diagnosis.
Being screwed up isn’t the only reason that the men of the New York Hawks make perfect clients for Necessary Roughness’ therapist, Dr. Dani Santino (Callie Thorne). Athletes’ condensed careers mesh well with television’s need to compress complicated stories into 42-minute chunks: “They require immediate intervention,” the show’s co-creator, Craig Shapiro, told me. “If you say, ‘Great, we can work on this for 10 months,’ that’s impossible for a pro athlete. That’s a whole season. Their career is down the toilet by then.”
Setting your show in the world of sports offers writers a wild card. Create a police procedural, and you’re locked into an endless string of murder mysteries. Cast some athletes, and you’re free to try a different genre every week. They’re got workplace issues—this season, Necessary Roughness introduced the Hawks’ reclusive owner, opening up a big can of crazy-boss story lines—and they’ve got drama at home: ABC Family’s recently canceled Make It or Break It, about the lives of would-be Olympic gymnasts, was devastating on the strains that elite training and competition put on family life.
Athletes will get sued, and injured, and some will go to rehab. They’ll betray each other, and bond for life, and they’ll take their shirts off for no reason whatsoever. They’ll sweat, and sacrifice, and best of all for writers, every game brings a chance to write soaring, inspirational speeches.
Of course, adding an athlete is not without its pitfalls. Some viewers refuse to watch sporting action, even if it’s fictional—they’re the people who fast-forward through the Quidditch scenes in Harry Potter movies. You could call this Friday Night Lights Syndrome: As Time explained back in 2007, after seeing the show’s early “testosterone-driven football promos,” many women avoided the show. NBC had to undertake a massive advertising campaign to put out the word that the show was about family, not football. And jocks don’t necessarily attract male eyeballs: Necessary Roughness has a more male-skewing audience than USA’s other original programs, but the difference is just three percentage points.
A sports setting also brings extra production headaches—you can’t cast a 140-pound weakling as a linebacker, and showing an athlete in action requires a lot of extra work, and expense, if it’s to look convincing. For this week’s Necessary Roughness, set in the world of roller derby, Shapiro cast Alicia Ziegler, an actress with a background in bodybuilding and surfing but without much skating experience. Ziegler spent three days with a local roller derby squad; had several sessions with Mark Ellis, the show’s sports coordinator; and was strapped into a special towing rig for her close-ups. Meanwhile, a courtroom set and a black robe is all a legal procedural needs for an authentic trial scene.
Necessary Roughness may have found the perfect way to incorporate athletes into its fictional world without becoming pigeon-holed: It has gradually shifted the focus away from the Hawks’ facility and into Dr. Dani’s consulting room. She has worked with a boxer, a NASCAR driver, a professional poker player, and a golfer, as well as a network news anchor and a media mogul. Despite its title, Necessary Roughness isn’t a football show, it’s a therapy show—it’s just that some of her patients strap on padding when they go to work.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.