More Jocks, Please
Necessary Roughness and The Game prove that more shows ought to explore the big-money world of pro sports.
Photograph courtesy BET.
I never watched an English country-house cook I didn’t love. You know, those salt-of-the-earth types who are forever upbraiding scullery maids and complaining bitterly that the lady of the house has invited the vicar to dinner just minutes before the pheasants are ready to come out of the oven. Cook’s up-do is always messy, her accent broad, and her patience wearing thin. Line her up with a stuffy but kind-hearted butler, a pert but plain-spoken maid, and a handsome, scheming footman, and you’re halfway to a shelf full of Emmys.
American television has its own lovable stock characters, most notably the recovering-alcoholic police captain, the wacky medical examiner, and the eccentric judge. But these TV types are wearing thin; soon they’ll be, like the sassy black friend, a hopeless cliché. (The Good Wife alone is responsible for a half-dozen oddball judges, including a hippie known as “Judge Tie-Dye.”)
Television needs a new utility player, someone who can inspire, provoke, and provide light relief. Several recent series suggest that there might be no better candidate than the pro athlete. Athletes can jerk tears, act like jerks, and clown it up. They’re rich, weird, and needy—the TV trifecta.
Just this month, USA’s Necessary Roughness, in which a psychotherapist shrinks the oversized heads of the NFL’s New York Hawks, returned for its second season; BET’s The Game, a comedy about the scandalous lives of pro football players and the WAGs who love them, aired its fifth-season finale; and BBC America’s Twenty Twelve, a satirical mockumentary about preparations for the London Olympic Games, is set to debut on June 28. Sometimes fake sports are more popular than the real thing: Last week, The Game, with nearly 2.5 million viewers, and Necessary Roughness, with 3.015 million, both outdrew the potentially decisive Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which was watched by just 2.07 million people.
The Game exemplifies the benefits of setting a show in the world of sports: You don’t have to worry about world-building or character development, because viewers already know, or think they know, what pro athletes are like. These days, the closest The Game’s gridiron players get to a football field is an occasional visit to the locker room. Instead, they spend most of their time doing what viewers expect of sports superstars: partying excessively, appearing on reality shows, and fathering babies. The storylines write themselves; the creative team just needs to rip tales of juicers, closeted gay players, and cold-hearted executives from the headlines of the sports pages.
By most standards, The Game is a terrible show, with cheap sets, second-rate scripts, and wooden actors, but the series is remarkably watchable because the millionaire players are fascinating characters. In Season 2, when wide receiver Derwin broke up with his girlfriend, quarterback Malik explained what kind of women make suitable dates for men of means. Soon, Derwin found himself at dinner with Janay, who’d already dated Dwyane Wade, Lamar Odom, and Hill Harper—since her family was rich, Derwin and his fellow A-listers could relax, knowing she wasn’t a gold digger. Once I’d seen that episode, I finally understood the Kardashians.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.