'Playmakers' Critics Miss the Point

Article excerpt

Byline: Patrick Hruby, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

News Item: Citing their distaste for ESPN's football-themed drama "Playmakers" and the hiring of Rush Limbaugh, two members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers declined to be interviewed by both the network and ESPN.com following the team's recent "Monday Night Football" loss to the Indianapolis Colts. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue also has criticized the show.


Now, does everyone feel better?

Granted, it's hard to dispute Rush Limbaugh's status as a large, somewhat-rotund pigskin dummy. Especially when the guy reportedly has a pill problem. Which, come to think of it, would fit right in on "Playmakers."

Likewise, both the Bucs and the league have good reason to dislike the ESPN program, a weekly series about a fictional pro team that makes cynical fare such as "North Dallas Forty" and Oliver Stone's acid-washed "Any Given Sunday" look like "Brian's Song" and "Knute Rockne, All-American," respectively.

From the starting quarterback to the backup tailback, the show's "Cougars" are a thoroughly despicable bunch. Charitably speaking. They're the sort of guys who smack their wives, lie to the police, batter their secret gay boyfriends and steal painkilling meds from bedridden, terminally-ill kids - that is, when they're not busy using a tenuous grasp of Hawthorne to bed the owner's inebriated daughter.

And that's just in last week's episode.

"It's horrible, total garbage," Tampa Bay receiver Joe Jurevicius told the St. Petersburg Times last month. "Sure, there are things that go on in the NFL. But not like that. That was exaggerated to the point where I felt, I can't believe that ESPN was showing it. There's no doubt that they went overboard. It was ridiculous."

Added Tagliabue: "It's a gross mischaracterization of our sport."

Maybe so. Still, the show's critics seem to be missing the point: "Playmakers" isn't a documentary. It's a drama. An exercise in make-believe. Like "Harry Potter." Or Iraqi WMD's. And frankly, if Fox's "The O.C." and the fake crash tests on NBC's "Dateline" have taught us anything about prime-time television, it's that overboard, ridiculous exaggerations aren't simply accepted. They're encouraged.

To put it another way: If "Playmakers" didn't resemble the NFL as scripted by an unholy tag team of Aaron Spelling and Quentin Tarantino, the show wouldn't be half as much fun to watch.

Consider Cougars running back Demetrius Harris, played by actor Omar Gooding. In the program's premier episode, Harris wakes up on game day between two naked women. Half-snorted lines of cocaine are strewn across his coffee table. While driving to the stadium, he's pulled over for speeding. Facing an open-and-shut possession bust, he charms his way into a harmless warning. Sufficiently chastened, Harris then stops at a nearby crackhouse, the better to get high just before kickoff.

Oh, and just for good measure, our hero finishes with 100-plus yards, earning a game ball for his efforts.

Is this realistic? Hardly. Is it flattering? Not in the least. Is it compelling? Absolutely. In a guilty, trashy way. And as such, entirely necessary for a gridiron-inspired show that's attempting to - gasp - draw an audience. Though "Playmakers" purports to reveal pro football's seamy underbelly, the sport's real dirty little secret is this: By and large, NFL players lead remarkably boring off-the-field lives. Just like the rest of us.

In fact, the average day of a true-to-life Demetrius Harris would go something like this:

Harris wakes up in bed, wedged between an Xbox controller and the Starfleet Command-sized remote control that comes with his 100-inch plasma TV. …