By Tim Grobaty
Special to TelevisionWeek
You turn on the TV, you get sports. It’s as simple as that.
Even if you manage to dodge the majors-pro and college football, basketball, baseball and hockey-you’re assured of getting the lesser sports, such as cheerleading yell-offs or lumberjack ax-throwing competitions. (In cable’s perfect world, there would someday be a hybrid sport combining ax-throwing and cheerleaders.)
Similarly, it’s as simple as this too: You turn on the TV, you get comedy or drama series. If we can agree on those two simplicities, how to explain the paucity of comedy or drama series about sports?
At first, it seems there are loads of them. Let’s do a top 10 sports series list real quick.
Right off the top of your head you come up with “White Shadow,” “Coach,” “Arli$$,” “Sports Night” … and then things start to stall. You begin to realize just how large a number 10 is, and just how far you’re willing to water down such terms as “best” and “sports.”
Perhaps the relative rarity of sports-related TV series is due to the fact that there are already hundreds of hours a day devoted to real sports on TV, and that the behind-the-scenes plots that would make up a series simply aren’t that interesting. Athletes aren’t the private eyes or cops or charismatic defense attorneys or presidents of the United States who populate popular TV shows.
You take an athlete off a field or court and there’s nothing left but a dirty jersey and smelly shoes. We want our athletes competing, not trading wry observational barbs and witticisms with their sexy wives, sullen daughters and smart-mouth sons at the breakfast nook.
That could explain why, even within the tiny world of sports-themed series, the athletes themselves are virtually never at the core of the show, unless you go deep enough into cable to include such short-lived series as HBO’s “1st and 10,” Showtime’s “The Hoop Life” or ESPN’s “Playmakers,” all of which were defeated before they could get on the scoreboard.
For our purposes, the 10 best TV sports series would start out strong, before fizzling out.
1. “The White Shadow.” Running from 1978 through 1981, this CBS drama starred Ken Howard as Ken Reeves, a white former pro basketballer for the Chicago Bulls whose career died when he blew out his knee. A friend and school principal nudged the bitter and disillusioned Reeves back onto the court as a coach at a mostly black inner-city high school. Created by the late producer and hoops fan Bruce Paltrow, the show dealt with some pretty hot stuff for the era: racism, drugs, gangs, poverty and learning disability.
2. “Coach.” The only sports series with serious legs, ABC’s “Coach” ran for 200 episodes from 1989 through ’97. The comedy had few surprises, running on the fail-safe formula of hot-headed but lovable Coach Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson) playing off his assistants and friends, particularly scatterbrained assistant Luther (Jerry Van Dyke) and the stereotypically moosey jock Dauber Dybinski (Bill Faggerbakke).
3. “Sports Night.” This initially bright series ran from the fall of 1998 through spring 2000. Created and totally controlled by the once-tireless Aaron Sorkin, who was doing “The West Wing” at the same time, it had a great and promising first season before burning out in a sort of self-satire in its sophomoric year.
4. “Arli$$.” It’s hard to like sports agents, and Robert Wuhl played the prototypical sports agent in this HBO sitcom that lumbered along, largely unheralded, from 1996 through 2003. Its better moments featured walk-on bits by real sportsters, including Dan Marino and Oscar de la Hoya.
5. At this point on our list, anything is fair game. “Tilt,” ESPN’s 2005 series about life on the pro poker circuit, for instance. “Poker’s a sport?” you ask in disbelief. Yes. If they have a world series of it, then, yes, it’s a sport.
6. How tangential are we allowed to get? Is “Everybody Loves Raymond” a sports series because the object of everybody’s affection is a sportswriter?
7. In that case, you’ve gotta throw on the list “The Odd Couple,” with Oscar Madison, the messier half of the couple, being a sportswriter too.
8. How about the “Brady Bunch” episode in which Marcia gets bonked on the schnozz with a football just before the Big Date?
9. How about the “MacGyver” episode when MacGyver disarms a bomb using a hockey ticket?
10. Finally, the obligatory tie: Athletes as crime-busters. We prefer, in this spot, “I Spy,” the classic Bill Cosby-Robert Culp series about two globe-trotting espionage agents who posed as a top-seeded tennis player (Culp) and his trainer (Cosby). Others may go the Saturday morning cartoon route with NBC’s 1983 show “Mr. T,” in which our hero and his team of young female gymnasts toured the world battling bad guys and pitying fools.
Tim Grobaty is a columnist and former TV writer for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.