By Josh Oakley
The “underdog team” narrative is one of the most overplayed tropes in on-screen fiction. There may not be as many examples of the form as there are for other sub-genres, but the issue comes in how little room there is to experiment. That isn’t to say great art cannot be made while utilizing the generic sports story (not only is Friday Night Lights one of my two favorite television shows of all time, my favorite episode of FNL is season three’s “Underdogs”), but rather that great effort must be utilized to deviate from the obvious. The new sitcom Back in the Game doesn’t seem to have that creative spirit. The pilot works to set the pieces for the most straightforward approach to the material, from the Bad News Bears-esque role of The Cannon (James Caan) to the inclusion of a weird, fat Asian kid on the team. Hopefully Back in the Game set up these clichés to be stricken down throughout its run, but given the final scene that oozes with unearned sentimentality I have my doubts.
I feel slightly bad for coming down so hard on the show, which I suppose means it’s accomplishing something. It certainly has its heart in the right place (for the most part), but that counts for little when the rest of the body is a Frankenstein of sitcoms that have been around since the 80’s and sports movies from longer ago than that. Nothing in the show is offensively bad, but that mostly stems from nothing in the show risking enough to be offensive. Yes, James Caan plays an alcoholic, but he’s one of those loveable alcoholics, not the kind that actually suffers or exists in real life. It doesn’t help that Caan largely phones in his performance. Luckily, his general demeanor is fairly close to the grumpiness the show is going for, and he gets the only laugh of the episode. That isn’t enough, however, to round out the cliché.
Of course there must be an understanding that, to a certain point, sitcom pilots have a fairly difficult job. They must set up premise and characters, give a general sense of the show’s universe, and be funny, all within 22 minutes. Few shows pass the test (I know there are more, but Cheers and 30 Rock are the only ones that leap to mind), but even those that fail should promise something. I’m ready to forgive the crutch of exposition, if there was any sense of place given here. I’d overlook a handful of one-note characters if it weren’t for the fact that all of the characters seem stuck in stereotype (only the leads, Terry and Danny, are given any sense of depth, but they suffer from protagonist-blandness).
The only real quality here stems from the potential of the central cast. Maggie Lawson is an endearing presence, who has done a fair amount with the often-flat character of Juliet on Psych. James Caan is James Caan, even if that doesn’t mean quite the same thing it did in decades past. To round out the promises of the cast, Benjamin Koldyke (Don on How I Met Your Mother) is an actor who seems to be waiting for the right role to utilize his comedic abilities. That role certainly wasn’t on Work It, and doesn’t seem to be here either (his character is a jackass named Dick, because, you know, subtlety). Perhaps, though, these three can pull something out of the material. Or, more likely, the weight of a gaggle of annoying young boys and sports metaphors will work to drown out any hints of light shown in the pilot episode. I wouldn’t give up on Back in the Game quite yet, but I certainly wouldn’t give it an extra inning or home run or something something baseball joke.
- James Caan’s delivery of “that kid is fat” is the one laugh the show got from me. It’s an easy pull, but still, credit where credit is due.
- I do like that Terry and Danny have a fairly solid mother/son relationship, just so we don’t have to wade through the cliché of angst-ridden kid-of-divorce.
- I touched on it above, but it would serve Back in the Game well to develop a sense of place. There’s a reason that a community is a common thread in sports narrative – it explains the importance of the sport in a relatable, potentially powerful way. Man, I miss Friday Night Lights.