The middle linebacker is in therapy and on anti-depressants. One running back is an obsessive-compulsive who's experimenting with steroids, while another is addicted to crack cocaine. The all-pro quarterback is so heavily into painkillers that he's using his and his teammates' prescriptions to stay off the injured reserve list. He's just happy his most recent concussion didn't cause cranial bleeding.
Welcome to the world of professional football, according to Playmakers, ESPN's first-ever dramatic series. It's gritty, graphic, rude and raw. The skillfully crafted pilot goes for the edge and finds it often enough to make Playmakers one of cable's most promising ensemble dramas since FX's The Shield. While there is nothing particularly original or extraordinary here, the combination of solid writing, fine acting and credible on-field play makes for a series that should, if nothing else, keep die-hard football fans in front of their TV sets for yet another night each week this fall.
One of the first images viewers see is an intense close-up of a super-sized needle going into a player's scarred knee as the team doctor tries to get him back on the field. The knee belongs to Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), a one-time star running back struggling to regain his starting position after surgery. Taylor plays for the Cougars, a fictional professional team in an indeterminate city, and his story provides viewers entree into the locker room.
The doctor explains the injections and pills are an integral part of his mission of "keeping the horses on the track." The "horse" Taylor has to outrun to get back in the lineup is a rookie sensation named Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding). What the owners, coaches and team doctors don't do to dehumanize the players, they do to each other in practice and locker room battles.
"You like Doc. He helped you rehab from your torn ACL. But you can't trust anyone, especially after the team used their first-round pick last year to draft your competition," Taylor says in voiceover. It's the prelude to his challenging Harris to a foot race and then being humiliated in front of coaches and teammates by his loss and Harris' taunting.
Hornsby (Gideon's Crossing) is the acting standout of the two episodes made available for screening. The strength of his performance resides primarily in the way he uses his body to suggest to viewers the very vulnerability he is trying to hide from his teammates and opponents.
The only teammate with any real sense of Taylor's inner torment is Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith), his best friend and the Cougars' star middle linebacker. But Olczyk has his own inner demons to battle after leaving a receiver from an opposing team paralyzed from the neck down with an illegal tackle. Viewers see the dirty hit in endless replay - just the way it keeps re-running in Olczyk's mind.
Creator John Eisendrath (Alias) does not limit point of view to Hornsby's character. After quickly surveying the landscape through Taylor's eyes, Eisendrath and director Scott Brazil (The Shield) move the point of view among several leading characters in the manner and style of NBC's Boomtown. If you are going to borrow, do it from the best.
In the end, the most promising aspect of Playmakers is its potential to play in different ways for different audiences. Some serious football fans will read it as video a clef. Is the banged-up quarterback with addiction to painkillers a disguised Brett Favre, of the Green Bay Packers? Others will savor the backstage gossip, such as the team doctor warning of kidney damage from excessive use of anti-inflammatory drugs - and using the real-life examples of pro basketball players Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott.
But on another level, the series looks as if it might have something important to say about what it means to be a man. Olczyk's sessions with his psychiatrist and subsequent decision to take the anti-depressant Zoloft will remind some viewers of Tony Soprano in HBO's The Sopranos. And, well, it should.
Just as Tony's notion of masculinity, based on Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack persona, has come to fail him in the crunch, so does Olczyk's. He's struggling to find a new male identity in the wake of discovering that being rough, tough and physically intimidating is no longer enough.
I don't know if Playmakers is ultimately going to be smart enough to play it both ways - simultaneously appealing both to those who love the warrior values of pro football, as well as those who would condemn that code. But you have to applaud the producers for at least trying to swim in waters this deep.
When: Tonight at 9
In brief: A graphic backstage look at life inside a professional football team