Monday, August 25, 2003

ESPN strives for reality

Football drama a little like Mariemont High

When Jason Matthew Smith suited up for Playmakers, ESPN's new scripted drama series about a fictional pro football team, it brought back vivid memories of his days playing for the Mariemont Warriors.

"It all came back - the smell of the tape, the practices in 100-degree heat, drinking hose water, and driving the seven-man sled," says Smith, who plays star linebacker Eric Olczyk on the network's first weekly drama.

"There were times when it was pretty unreal," says Smith, a 1992 graduate and tri-captain for coach Tom Crosby.

Being a football star on ESPN is pretty unreal for Smith, who moved to Hollywood 31/2 years ago after a brief stint bartending here at Buffalo Wild Wings. Playmakers is his first shot in the big leagues, after bit parts on ER, Six Feet Under, Bernie Mac and Hollywood Homicide.

Not only is the TV rookie in the middle of the defense, calling out assignments, and sulking at home about his paralyzing hit on a wide receiver, but he's also the hulking No. 54 in the center of ESPN's Playmakers promotional campaign.

"It's all pretty trippy," says Smith, 30, by phone from Toronto, where the series is filmed with Omar Gooding (rookie running back Demetrius Harris), Russell Hornsby (veteran running back Leon Taylor), Chris Wiehl (quarterback Derek McConnell) and Tony Denison (coach Mike George).

"I couldn't think of a better job than to play the killer with a conscience. On the field, he's a butt-kicker ... and off the field, you see his emotions and conscience."

The show opens with Smith visiting the player he paralyzed. Through voice-overs, viewers will hear the macho men's inner-most fears and conceits.

"I hit this guy clean. No penalty or nothing. Coach told me it saved the game. I even got a game ball," says Olczyk, who later seeks out the team psychiatrist.

Explains Playmakers creator Jim Eisendrath, a former writer for Alias and Felicity: "I wanted the audience to know what's really going on in their heads - and there is no way they'd say it out loud."

The excellent blend of on-field triumphs and off-field tragedies - chronic pain, exhaustion, family stress, drug addiction and job insecurity - will make Playmakers a hit with ESPN's hard-core audience, and maybe casual viewers, too.

ESPN's goal is just that - to broaden its base beyond sports fanatics - with movies and reality series. About a third of the viewers for Season on the Brink, its movie about Bob Knight's 1984-85 Indiana University basketball team, were "casual viewers" of ESPN, says Mark Shapiro, vice president for programming and production.

"We clearly weren't reaching an audience as broad as we wanted ... that audience that doesn't require Xs and Os," he says. "The drama series is a natural evolution from the movies."

The lesson learned from Season on the Brink, however, was that game action must look as realistic as the 250-plus basketball games ESPN telecasts.

Former college and pro players were signed to be extras for Playmakers' fictional pro team, the Cougars. Retired players and coaches consulted on staging plays, some of which were practiced for a month before shooting them in the Toronto SkyDome.

Some game scenes were reshot after ESPN's football experts critiqued early footage, Shapiro says. Hits weren't hard enough, reactions weren't right, and the quarterback's footwork was clumsy.

"The sports savvy audience of ESPN is going to run - and run fast - if the football is not authentic," Shapiro says.

Says Smith: "If we do something on the field that doesn't look like an actual portrayal of NFL football ... they'll let us know."

"NFL football," however, is a phrase never seen or heard on this expose on the dark underbelly of professional sports. ESPN, which telecasts NFL Sunday night games, has to delicately tiptoe down the sidelines on Playmakers - not wanting to offend the NFL, while making viewers believe they're looking inside an NFL locker room.

Smith says viewers will like the gritty realism - Taylor's (Hornsby) gutsy comeback from knee surgery, Olczyk's flirtation with quitting, and Harris' cocaine habit.

"You get to see why things are the way they are in sports. You get to see the factors that are the motivation for (players') decisions," Smith says.

Rose on deck?

A Pete Rose movie is among the scripted dramas under consideration at ESPN, according to Mark Shapiro, vice president for programming and production.

But a movie about the former Reds player-manager, banned from baseball in 1989, is not imminent, says Rob Tobias, ESPN spokesman. "There is no script. Nobody has been hired. It's in the development stage, but nothing further than that."

ESPN Original Entertainment has produced two TV movies in the past 18 months, Season on the Brink about basketball coach Bob Knight, and Junction Boys about football coach Bear Bryant.

On the air

What: Playmakers

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN. (Repeats 10 p.m. Tuesday)

Rating: TV-MA, for mature audiences, unsuitable for children under 17. Some nudity and profanity.



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