ESPN gamely proffers a scripted drama

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Who knew that playing a boy's game could make grown men so miserable? The 11-episode series "Playmakers" (8 p.m., ESPN) is the first scripted drama to come out of the all-sports network. It follows a group of professional football players for the fictional NFL team the Cougars as they vie for playing time and try to reconcile their brutal, competitive job with their private lives.

The series does a nice job of blending the overlapping personal stories. Unfortunately, every character has a fairly grim tale to tell.

On the surface, Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith) is living a blue-collar dream as a star linebacker. But he's haunted by the hit he made on an opposing player, a "clean" tackle that put the man in the hospital, where he lies completely paralyzed. This trauma sends Olczyk to counseling, where he relives the nightmare of watching his brother die during high school football summer practice sessions run by their tyrannical coach father. Yup, underneath his behemoth frame, Eric's riddled with more neuroses than Woody Allen. But at least he's still playing.

The makers of "Playmakers" strive so hard to be taken seriously that they forget to include the moments of levity and even absurdity that distinguish superior dramas from mediocre fare. "Playmakers" could use a few more wisenheimers to distract us from the "Cries and Whispers" atmosphere around the locker room.

Tonight's other highlights

Cult choice

Director George Lucas studied anthropology in college, and he put that training to good use in the 1973 gem "American Graffiti" (7 p.m., AMC), a music-filled look at teenage car culture circa 1962.

Late night

Serena Williams appears on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Jackie Chan and Sean Paul on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).