Although ESPN continues expertly the chronicle the day's current sporting highlights and although "Outside the Lines" continues to be the "60 Minutes" of in-depth sports reporting and although the network has diversified its portfolio with scripted movies and miniseries programming, I've always considered the SportsCentury program to be the network's pinnacle.
In 1999, ESPN dedicated more programming hours than I would dare count to listing the 20th Century's 50 Greatest Athletes, doing a different biography every week, while also looking at the century's great games, coaches. I don't remember any one special individually, but I remember the breadth and depth of the initiative, as well as the debate it spawned. Is Secretariat and athlete and how can Secretariat possibly be a better athlete than Mickey Mantle? Does O.J. Simpson's off-field behavior make his on-field achievements less significant? How do you compare a Jim Thorpe to today's athletes? And who's #1?
With SportsCentury, ESPN set itself an ambitious plan and followed through admirably.
It may be too early to know for sure, but if the initial installments are any indication, ESPN may have topped itself in scope and artistry. With ESPN celebrating its 30th anniversary, the cable network contacted 30 acclaimed filmmakers (and a few interesting non-filmmakers) and said, "If you could tell one sports story from these 30 years, what story would you tell?"
The results are astounding. The complete list of films is up on the "30 For 30" website and my immediate reaction was, "There's not a single one of these 30 films that doesn't interest me on some level." Even the stories I don't care about have a hook that draws me in. Do I really need to watch a story about the Steinbrenner family? No. But if it's directed by "Harlan County USA" Oscar winner Barbara Kopple? Sure. Another documentary about Michael Jordan? No thanks. A documentary about MJ's minor league baseball season from "Bull Durham" director Ron Shelton? Why yes, please.
[More thoughts on the first four "30 For 30" hours after the break...]
The original "Three Rivers" pilot sent to critics in May was not really a TV show. It was a premise -- organ transplant surgeons -- and the core of a cast -- Alex O'Loughlin and Katherine Moennig, mostly -- but no tone or pace or workable structure.
When "Three Rivers" premieres on Sunday (Oct. 4), viewers won't see that original pilot. They also won't see the reshot version of that pilot. They'll see an entirely different episode and, even though they won't know it, they're also seeing an entirely different show.
The new "Three Rivers" has a little flash, a little style and some sense of where it fits in. Although it isn't produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and although it isn't part of the "NCIS" family, "Three Rivers" now actually feels like a CBS Medical Drama. And yes, that means it's resolutely procedural, somewhat surface-oriented and capable of being insanely manipultative. And no, this doesn't mean that "Three Rivers" is necessarily a show I think is very good. But this is now a show with a chance to succeed, which it was not before.
My review of "Three Rivers" after the break...
Sloppy execution cripples what ought to have been an extremely promising possibility for franchise reinvention in "Stargate Universe." The new Syfy series, premiering on Friday (Oct. 2), finds masterminds Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper determined to deliver the grittiest, darkest, most realistic "Stargate" to date, a worthy ambition except for when the result is also this dull and lugubrious.
Full disclosure: Except for passing seconds here and there, the last "Stargate" I watched with any seriousness had James Spader, Kurt Russell and the chick from "The Crying Game." It was a movie I kinda dug, but I never really required an expansion for that work. But with MGM and Syfy so enthusiastic about "Stargate Universe" and so insistent that this was a "Stargate" that was intended to welcome fresh eyes, I decided to give it a shot. After all, a similar experiment served me well on "Torchwood: Children of Earth," which stands as one of my favorite TV experiences of the year, despite no interest at in "Torchwood" mythology.
And "Stargate Universe" is loaded with actors I respect, including Robert Carlyle, Louis Ferreira, Ming-Na and Lou Diamond Phillips. What? You don't respect Lou? After "Stand and Deliver," "La Bamba," "Wolf Lake" and his week in the jungle with Spencer, the man deserves your admiration and he certainly served three television hours of my time.
There's a very real chance that "Stargate Universe" will play totally differently for fans of the franchise and also that a certain subset of science fiction fans will embrace its bleak perspective. I can only share my side...
After the break...
The news broke late Thursday (Oct. 1) that on "The Late Show," David Letterman was going to discuss an extortion attempt that led to the popular host's recent grand jury testimony and, earlier in the day, the arrest of a gentleman later identified as a "48 Hours" employee.
A press release from Letterman's people acknowledged that the host had admitted to sexual relationships with members of his staff. The Internet was all a-buzz and I even put aside Thursday evening programming to watch "The Late Show" early, something I almost never do.
But the episode began with Letterman's monologue. And a strange monologue it was for the many, many viewers expecting a candid confessional. Letterman made jokes about Mark Sanford, about Roman Polanski, about O.J. Simpson, about Sarah Palin. He covered 40 years of sex scandal fodder and tabloid favorites as if he had nothing to be ashamed of himself.
And possibly he didn't.
Since I dedicated a lot of time and brain cells to eviscerating "Hank," it gives me some minor relief to say that Kelsey Grammer's "Back to You" pal Patricia Heaton has a far better comedy also premiering on Wednesday (Sept. 30) night.
Since there are several thousand YouTube videos involving talented kittens and amorous pandas that are also better than "Hank," I don't want to damn "The Middle" with praise that faint. It's a decent family sitcom that plays, as the title suggests, right down the middle. Although it makes concessions to trendy industry preference by going single-camera, its values, storylines and overall sense of humor are familiar and comfortable enough that "The Middle" would have been right at home in a TGIF lineup, back when ABC had such a thing.
Having the toxic "Hank" as its lead-in won't help "The Middle," but it's a surprisingly solid match with "Modern Family," which attracted a big audience in its premiere.
The rest of my review of "The Middle" is after the break. I'm going to keep using words like "solid" and "decent" and "respectable" and "amusing." That won't be the same as "brilliant" or "hilarious" or "Emmy-bait." But it's nothing to be ashamed of either.