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ESPN explores mind games, fails to score

It's football season, and you flip to ESPN to watch the human machines traverse the field -- the unstoppable plow, the speeding car, the lit cannon. But instead you find cranky men in a locker room, an ailing quarterback in an ice-cube bath, and a desperate running back in a crack house with a pipe in his mouth. You find an ensemble of very flawed human beings whose demons -- depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, secret drug abuse -- seem to have been imported from Lifetime: Television for Women.

You find "Playmakers": a disappointing melodrama about football players that relies much too heavily on voice-overs written in the second person. You find yourself thinking the series would be significantly better without the flow of self-analytical, cerebral monologues, an example of which goes like this: "You hate the game, but you don't have the strength to leave it, so you play angry. Someone's going to pay for this. And that's what makes you good."

"Playmakers," which premieres tonight at 9, is ESPN's first dramatic series. It's the network's attempt to go "behind the macho" to explore what football players really feel, which is why the narrative is so clogged with interior voices. It also represents the network's growing effort to move beyond straight sports coverage, to target casual sports fans and women, even if "Playmakers" -- or at least the first two episodes sent for preview -- feature no significant female characters.

Focusing on a fictional pro team called the Cougars, the show interweaves the stories of a handful of players and their head coach. Eric (Jason Matthew Smith) is a linebacker who paralyzes an opponent during a game and now suffers a massive guilt complex that lands him in therapy. Leon (Russell Hornsby) is an aging running back getting pushed aside by the team owners, who favor the young Demetrius (Omar Gooding). The rebellious Demetrius, however, is a full-on crackhead, and he's clearly careening toward disaster. In a gruesome scene in next week's episode, he prepares for a mandatory drug test with the help of a doctor, a catheter, and someone else's urine.

It's too bad "Playmakers" doesn't score, because its concept has some potential. Created by John Eisendrath of "Alias" and "Felicity," it is designed to probe the psychological strains that team dynamics and physical injuries have on sensitive egos. Rather than spending time on the field, it wants to chronicle the gnarly mind games around the game. It's not "Knots Landing" with football-playing hubbies; it's all about the head trips of being a player.

But we've seen all of its characters before, all over TV and in movies such as "Any Given Sunday." Maybe it's because the 11-episode season will be on a basic cable channel that the writers offer only familiar characters and easy-to-predict plot turns. Gooding's smug young player is on every TV crime drama that ever gave a celebrity an ugly drug problem. Of course he gets stopped by the police for speeding; of course they overlook a packet of drugs on the floor of his car. Hornsby's aging veteran is also a TV staple, as he embodies the problems of aging in a youthful profession. Not surprisingly, he succumbs to a little chemical assistance.

The writers challenge viewers with the show's unusual, meditative approach, but they keep everything else too generic. The minute you meet these characters, you know their plot arcs.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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