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Tuned In: Summer TV continues to score with 'Playmakers'

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After a disappointing 2002-03 television season, and certainly compared to all the mindless movies in theaters lately, summer TV has been an oasis of smart entertainment.

ESPN's first scripted dramatic series, "Playmakers," features, from left, Marcello Thedford, Jason Matthew Smith, Omar Gooding, Russell Hornsby, Chris Wiehl and Tony Denison. (Bob D'Amico)

On first glance, that might seem illogical. To be sure, plenty of "reality" series have junked up the airwaves, particularly earlier this summer ("The Amazing Race" excepted). But brush that detritus away, look carefully and you'll see a whole raft of quality programs.

The hits keep coming tonight with ESPN's first original scripted series, "Playmakers" (9 p.m.), the story of a fictional professional football team created and written by John Eisendrath ("Alias," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "WIOU").

It pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable on basic cable -- profanity is common but doesn't seem gratuitous; there's some mild nudity (bare behinds) -- but contains nothing that hasn't already been heard or seen on "The Shield" or "NYPD Blue." It's a drama for adults about what happens off the field that children would probably be bored by anyway.

The series focuses on four or five characters each week, and, for the most part, they defy stereotypes.

Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) is the sensitive linebacker who's traumatized from accidentally paralyzing an opponent. "Everybody who plays football gets hurt ... one way or another," he says in voice-over narration that's common to "Playmakers."

Eric's best friend on the team is Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), an aging running back and family man/good guy who sees his position on the team usurped by a brash young newcomer, self-destructive Demetrius Harris (Omar Gooding).

"This league's like life," Harris says. "When you're a playmaker, the rules don't apply."

That's proved true in tonight's premiere as the team owner's whims force the coach (Tony Denison) to go against his better judgment, rewarding the misbehavior of a rising star at the expense of a responsible team player who's struggling.

Eisendrath has written a smart, insightful series that explores the psychology of professional athletes, the temptations of drugs and the understanding that players are sometimes treated like race horses rather than human beings.

The one thing ESPN probably doesn't want the show categorized as is a soap opera, but there's no shame in that description for a good soap. "Playmakers" is serialized to a degree and seems to inhabit a spot on the TV show spectrum not far from HBO's "Oz," which was also a soap catering to men.

More impressive still: "Playmakers" is better than any drama the broadcast networks will debut next month.

The only trouble with this summer of quality TV? Much of it premieres on a single night -- Tuesday, home of "Playmakers," "MI-5," "Nip/Tuck," "The OC" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

It's a good thing the cable networks schedule multiple runs of their series. And Fox got into the act, replaying episodes of "The OC" several times, which helped garner a larger audience for the second week's Tuesday-night episode than for the series premiere.

Here's why these summer series are worth watching:

"Dead Like Me" (10 p.m. Fridays, Showtime): Funnier than "Six Feet Under," less saccharine than "Providence," this meditation on life and death has been a true surprise. Instead of the dead ghost of a mother watching over her daughter, a deceased daughter turned grim reaper checks in on the family she left behind.

Ellen Muth's sullen portrayal of Georgia "George" Lass has matured, and the exploration of her new workplace life -- both her job with the reapers and her job alongside humans -- has given the series a full landscape to explore. The addition of Laura Harris (evil Marie on "24") as a Southern starlet has given the series even more juice to go the distance.

"MI-5" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, A&E): With plots that twist and turn and characters who reveal their true colors slowly, this British import is a thoroughly involving spy drama.

Tonight's episode was the first-season cliffhanger finale in England. American viewers are luckier: A&E bought two episodes from the second season, so the nail-biting over tonight's bomb plot should end next week.

"The O.C." (9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox): A fun teen soap that continues to improve week by week, this show introduced a star in the making, Benjamin McKenzie as young delinquent Ryan Atwood.

The pilot tried too hard to be edgy, but subsequent episodes have settled into more comfortable territory as the teen characters continue to bond and the angsty parents continue to stew, plot and deceive.

"Nip/Tuck" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX): Yes, it's too gross in its depiction of plastic surgery operations, but the characterizations of repressed Dr. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and id-centric Dr. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) are so engrossing it makes watching worthwhile, even if you have to close your eyes during surgery scenes.

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, Bravo): Funny, catty, sweet and ultimately positive and uplifting, this makeover show features five gay men who give fashion, culinary and home decorating advice to slovenly straight men.

Does it play into stereotypes? A little, both gay and straight, but ultimately the show does more good than harm in its unthreatening depictions of sexual identity.

"Reno 911!" (10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Comedy Central): The Keystone Kops for a new century, this merry band of dim bulbs radiates ridiculousness in each episode. These characters are funnier still because of spit-take funny dialogue.

Yes, the junk is out there -- and so are the inevitable reruns -- but with a little planning, understanding of network repeat schedules and the ability to program a VCR, viewers can be entertained with quality scripted entertainment for a half-dozen hours per week. That's more than enough.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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