By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

I'm not sure what's happening with ESPN, but I think it's a good thing. In the first scene of "Playmakers", an ambitious football drama premiering Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- right after "The World Series of Poker, Day 742" -- we hear a paralyzed wide receiver grumble, "I can't even feel my (expletive)."

Put on your game face because "Playmakers" is certainly intense.

That's right, (expletive).

I waited for Vitale to enter the hospital room. And I waited. And I waited. Eventually it dawned on me that somebody just said (expletive) on ESPN. Looking back, it was a watershed moment for the Worldwide Leader, right up there with Jeff Brantley unleashing his retro-Larry Legend mullet-perm to an ecstatic "Baseball Tonight" audience for the first time.

Anyway, (expletive) set the tone for the rest of the pilot: Semi-naked groupies, guys smoking crack, and more swear words like (bleep) and (expletive deleted), none of which I'm allowed to use in this column. You figure it out.

While watching everything unfold, I kept imagining my buddy Gus' 70-year-old father searching for a Giants score, clicking on (what he thought was) "Baseball Tonight," then being helped out of the room five minutes later. We've come a long way from the days of Sal Marciano and Lou Palmer, folks.

As it turns out, "Playmakers" is an intense, fairly exhausting show, like if someone took "Oz," watered it down, removed the gang rapes and threw football helmets on everybody. Much like "Oz," you need to suspend your "Believability Radar" for an hour and enjoy the ride; if you're saying to yourself, "Wait a second, there's no way a running back could smoke crack 90 minutes before a game and still play," then this probably isn't the show for you.

Before we delve any further, you should know three things:

Omar Gooding, as cocky running back Demetrius Harris, is clearly the star of the series.

1. I watched the first two episodes of "Playmakers" -- the finished pilot and a rough cut of the second episode -- and it kept my interest the entire time. If you like football and you like different types of TV shows, it's worth sitting through the pilot -- if only because it's a unique show, and because there hasn't been a truly memorable sports-related show since "The White Shadow" (as I described in detail two years ago).

2. With that said, I didn't like "Playmakers" all that much, for the same reason that I stopped watching "Oz" right after Adebici died (for God's sake, couldn't they have spun him off into his own sitcom?) and inmates started getting killed in every way imaginable. "Playmakers" never seems totally believable; it's like a distorted, over-the-top version of the NFL. For instance, Episode No. 2 revolves entirely around painkillers, crack, steroids, and players beating drug tests by injecting clean urine into their (expletives) with a catheter. Apparently strippers, lap dances, date rape and abortions are scheduled for Episode No. 3.

3. And with THAT said, there's a 95 percent chance that I will end up TiVO-ing Episode No. 3 to see what happens.

So there you go. As far as endorsements go, that's about as lukewarm as you can get. My buddy Sal watched the first two shows and thought they were "compelling and intense ... maybe too intense ... sort of reminds me of 'Oz' in that you might need a break from watching it three weeks in." I liked that analogy. It's the same reason I avoid "The Wire," a terrific show that always leaves me drained and unhappy after it's over. Whether that happens with me and "Playmakers" remains to be seen.

There were a number of things I liked here. For one thing, creator John Eisendrath did the right thing by concentrating on the pregame/postgame stuff; for a show like this, you don't need game scenes that would cost too much money and seem comically staged, anyway. I liked the rhythm of the show, the way things moved from scene to scene, the theme music, even the running clock that was ripped right from "24." And the characters were sketched out distinctly enough that you could tell them apart (even during the pilot, when it's always difficult to tell who's who).

The rivalry between the aging Leon Taylor, left, and the brash, young D.H. is one of the best plot lines in 'Playmakers'.

Four major plots emerge in the pilot episode (airing Tuesday night, as you probably know from the thousands of commercials on ESPN this week).

  • An engaging rivalry between aging running back Leon Taylor (played by Russell Hornsby) and upstart rookie D.H. Harris (Omar Gooding, the only actor on the show who really distinguishes himself on the show). Coming off knee surgery, Leon is trying to get his job back, but he's stuck in that "Terrell Davis after the ACL surgery" phase of his career, and D.H. runs like Clinton Portis. There's some good tension and cattiness here; enough to make you forget about the 40-yard dash in the beginning, where D.H. falls behind, then makes the most dramatic comeback since Rocky's beach sprint against Apollo (if you want to like this show, don't replay that scene in slow motion).

  • DH's rollercoaster ride with drugs, women and partying, the best part of the show. Every time he appeared on-screen, I was excited: Imagine Terry Glenn's background, LaDainian Tomlinson's talent, Michael Irvin's demons, and that weird vibe you get every time you see Edgerrin James get interviewed. That's DH. Good actor, great character. If they were smart, they would start revolving shows around him; I loved the scene in the second episode when DH and his posse were arguing about rappers. High comedy.

    We need more of that stuff ... and less of:

  • Star linebacker Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith), who battles inner demons after paralyzing an opposing receiver in a game: Nightmares, phone calls with his sports psychologist, awkward visits to the hospital room, the whole shebang. He's like a bald Zach Thomas -- and probably about as good of an actor. Just about every scene with this guy was excruciating to some degree, but none more than the hospital scene where he brought DVDs to the guy he paralyzed.

    As coach George, Tony Denison isn't exactly Al Pacino.

    Hey, I know you have screws in your head, and you can't move, and there aren't any TVs on the ceiling, but you would die laughing at the deleted scenes in "Old School" if you could see them.

  • A tepid battle of personalities between the team's overbearing owner and his taciturn coach, centered mostly around which running back should play. Here's where I thought the producers really screwed up: They needed a name actor to play the coach, someone who could carry this baby for scenes at a time, like Pacino in "Any Given Sunday," or Kaplan in "Fast Break." Instead, they gave us ... Mr. Tony Denison, who makes Tony Dungy seem electric by comparison.

    I know they were on a budget for these things, but why not break the bank for someone good here? Hell, I would have settled for Jack Wagner. When you're launching a show about professional football and avoiding game scenes, then you better hit a home run with little things like "Here's the scene where the coach gives an inspiring pregame speech." In a scene like that, we should feel like we're watching Dave McGinnis' Emmy Award-winning work in the "Arizona Cardinals 2002 Yearbook" all over again.

    And if I'm not ... well, there's a problem here. A big one.

    (There's one more character who doesn't emerge until Episode No. 2: A Peyton Manning lookalike-QB with a burgeoning addiction to painkillers. He spends most of the second show with a weird half-smile/half-grimace on his face, like he can't see the cue cards or something. When he appeared on screen with the coach, I think both of them actually flat-lined for a few seconds. I can't believe they didn't lure Craig Sheffer out of retirement for this role; at the very least, James VanDerBeek could have filled in.)

    Maybe they can trade the intense linebacker and fire the coach.

    So there you go. There's actually a good foundation here for a weekly drama; just for DH alone, it's worth watching. And because it's a football setting, they can always fire the coach, waive the QB and trade the bald linebacker, then bring in some characters and actors that resonate with the audience like DH does.

    Down the road, I'm hoping for less clichés (groaners like "This league's like life -- when you're a playmaker, the rules don't apply") and narration that doesn't sound just like the guy from the Gatorade commercial. I'm hoping they concentrate on the riff-raff that surrounds the teams, like DH's posse and the slutty TV reporter who had an affair with the aging running back. And I'm desperately hoping they bleep out f-bombs instead of having the coach say things like "This is the biggest damn game of the damn year!" (an actual quote from the pilot).

    And that leads to a bigger point, one which will probably determine whether "Playmakers" succeeds or not. I'm not sure you can "push the envelope" on basic cable these days, not when HBO and Showtime are crossing every line imaginable. Shows like "Playmakers" inevitably end up in creative limbo -- just different enough from network TV that it's appealing, but restricted from heeding the great Bruce Dickinson's advice and really exploring the proverbial studio space.

    If you enjoyed this review, check out some of Bill Simmons' previous ones:

  • "Seabiscuit"
  • "The Season"
  • "The Rookie"
  • "Season on the Brink"
  • "Rollerball"
  • "Ali"
  • "Inside Schwartz"
  • "Hardball"
  • "Summer Catch"
  • Here's an analogy, which we'll call the "Four-beer analogy": Let's say you're hitting a sports bar with your buddies for Monday Night Football. You could have two or three beers, throw down some chicken wings, play some Golden Tee, wager on the home team, bond with your boys, then head home when the outcome has been decided. Or you could do everything from above, but keep throwing down beers until you're bombed and someone has to drive you home. Either way, it's going to be a good time.

    Well, unless you have four beers.

    That kills you. You're not sober enough to drive home. You're not quite drunk enough that you feel like you really let loose; if anything, you're more groggy than anything. And you drank just enough that you'll have trouble getting up for work/class the following morning. The next day, you always end up wishing you had more beers or less beers. Just not four.

    "Playmakers" left me with that four-beer feeling. Either they should have gone all the way, spent money on better actors and crossed a bunch of lines, or they should have toned things down, made things more realistic and appealed to a wider audience. Regardless, it's an intriguing direction for ESPN, one worth watching ... at least for a few shows, possibly more. And if this show leads to Page 2 writers eventually being able to call Isiah Thomas a big fat (expletive) in columns, then nobody's happier than me.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get the (bleep) out of here.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.

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