Maybe it’s time to retire the practice of weaving radio broadcasts through shows about high-school sports teams and the small towns that pulse to their rhythms. Thus, last year, began the still-fantastic Friday Night Lights—a man on the airwaves giving you twangs of exposition about the Dillon Panthers. Thus, last Monday, began Nimrod Nation (Sundance, 9 p.m. ET), an eight-part nonfiction series about the boys’ basketball team at Watersmeet Township School, a K-12 outfit in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s apparently in the northern part of the USA, so when the radio hosts aren’t fretting manfully about whether the team will return to the state tournament, they say things like “at least we’ll get above zero today, by the looks of things,” and “it’s 27 below zero,” and “we’ll get up to absolute zero this afternoon.” And thus, on Thursday, Varsity Inc. (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET) begins spiraling around the football team in West Monroe, La., where, with no drama to be milked from the daily weather report, we simply hear the talk-show hosts berating teenagers, stoking quarterback controversies, and forging the local consciousness.
The radio device is obviously enticing to producers, what with the economical way it readies the viewer for the play-by-play voice-over of game day and creates a vision of a community joined by hanging on a natural narrator’s every word. And yet it lacks hustle. Please cut it out.
According to going cultural prejudices, I ought to describe Nimrod Nation as a documentary and Varsity Inc. as a reality show. The former—directed by Brett Morgan, best known for The Kid Stays in the Picture, the memoir of the talented and overtanned Hollywood producer Robert Evans—makes a greater effort at telling a story about a community. Its herky-jerky narrative involves a teenage pregnancy, the despoiling of nature, and the erosion of Native American culture. Horribly, its music is Very Serious. Nimrod Nation has been defaced by its own score, strings and reeds that constantly drip and gloop and burble over with pathos no matter what’s happening on-screen: tipoffs, buzzer-beaters, free-throw practice, whatever.
Meanwhile, Varsity Inc. is all quick cuts and slow burns. It’s rather like Friday Night Lights on steroids, which is to say that it’s irritable, overly aggressive, and kind of oily. Early in the first of its six episodes, the coach tells the young men that there are no stars on his team. A little bit later, we meet the stars of this show: the quarterback with the cheerleader girlfriend and the sudden sinus infection. The second-string QB who may or may not be ready for the big time. The cocky fullback who’s suddenly all thumbs. And then we have the coaches, who ceaselessly yell with the hoarse authority of drill sergeants, or so it would seem, if, half the time, they weren’t yelling at the players for walking away from them while they were yelling.
Both of the shows come tantalizingly close to offering intimate glimpses of awkward relationships. Up in Watersmeet, the coach, George Peterson III, is also the school principal and one of his starters, George Peterson IV, is also a C student. Down in West Monroe, the two rival quarterbacks’ fathers—one a white policeman, the other a black pastor—each ditch work to watch practice, trading good-natured jokes as they size up their sons. But both Nimrod Nation and Varsity Inc. are really geared to evoke nostalgia for the viewer’s adolescence and for Normal Rockwell’s America. They’re cheerleading for the simple and clear-cut life of victory and defeat, home and away, and why not? Go, fight, win.