Mizzou vs South Dakota State
Episode title: "Pilot"
Season 1, Episode 1 (aired August 30th @ 230 pm on ESPNU)
Scene: "The Zou" in Columbia, Missouri
Television has a long history of dramatizing slices of life that most people will never experience. But where medicine, law, and police work have succeeded over and over in ever-modernized configurations – the heroic underpinnings of those professions lending a sort of universal appeal – other areas ripe with storytelling possibilities have remained largely unexplored. After all, why tackle (feel free to keep track of the football puns now; this makes 1) the unknown when there are ample opportunities to go back to the tried and true?
The team behind Missouri Tigers, though, seem determined to forge a new path in dramatic television. Drawing inevitable comparisons to critical sensation Friday Night Lights (only for college instead of high school), the show opens at the beginning of a season-opening game. We see the stadium, the students, the mascot riding the fire truck along the track that surrounds the field of play; we see everything one expects to see in a show about sports. It’s what we don’t see that surprises. From the opening minutes to the appearance of 0:00 on the game clock, we see almost nothing but the game.
Immersive television is no new enterprise, of course. Shows from M*A*S*H to Seinfeld to 24 have used it to successful impact. Missouri Tigers’ intriguing pilot stands apart from these examples, though, because it is backdrop made center stage. The show is the game, the game is the purpose. There is no depiction of the star quarterback struggling to hold onto his girlfriend, there is no formulaic story about a coach being redeemed after a bout of substance abuse. It’s just football, and the personalities that emerge do so because of what is happening on the field of play.
Innovation alone cannot, however, create compelling interest. Like a running back picking up a third and short, it requires execution. And for the most part, the show manages this pretty well.
Early on, the scene is set – this is a Missouri Tigers home game. Playing at the TV-ready, blandly named Memorial Stadium, this is a team coming off a season both highly successful and very surprising. A team on the rise. Their opponent in this opening game is the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, both the school location and the insipid, fictitious nickname serving as clues about the two teams’ comparative stature.
There isn’t a lot of mystery behind this pilot episode. Giving Missouri a lesser opponent gives the writers a chance to establish what will likely prove season-long storylines.
The choice of a four-act play is unusual, but the first act had a strong opening, the audience was introduced to the main characters on both sides. The character Darius White chewed through SDSU's secondary on that 44-yard TD almost as well as he chews scenery. Russell Hansbrough pulled off what I thought was the highlight of the show only about 15 minutes in with his stunning, tackle evading, double back across the field resulting in a dive into the end zone.
I liked that we were introduced to the villain of this episode very early on. Zach Zenner's dastardly 75-yard touchdown run proved to be the perfect inciting incident for this drama. Whoever wrote this script made it evident very early on they weren't going to pull any punches. They really drove home the angst that will no doubt become an undercurrent of the entire season.
Who stole the show, for me, was the character of Markus Golden. He already has the physique and charisma to become an A-list star, and starring in this role may be what it takes to launch him into prime-time.
Switzy, what did you make of the choice of locations and the composition of the scenes for this episode? Admittedly one-dimensional taking place entire in Columbia's Faurot Field, did anything stand out to you?
You make a good point about Darius White, whose introduction was certainly exciting. But it seems like the show might be trying to juggle too much as it kicks off the season -- after his explosive pair of scores, he basically disappears for the last three-quarters of the episode. I will be interested to see if he returns to a bigger role later in the season. Hansbrough, on the other hand, certainly earned his starring role with the virtuoso run you mention and a rock-solid performance throughout the episode.
Getting to your question, pilot episodes are often simultaneously blessed and burdened with the additional money spent trying to sell the show to a network. I think it is to the credit of this production crew that they avoided the temptation to ramp up the setting too much. You could see the potential for Memorial Stadium to belong to a league that apparently has it's own television network (far-fetched though that seems) but for this low-level opponent, there were some empty seats around the stadium and quite a few crowd shots failed to convince me that this was a truly invested audience. I think it's clear that they were forced to film this in summer -- a tough task for what is meant to be primarily a fall weather sport. I can only imagine that many of the extras were forced to wait in long lines waiting for the crowd shots, probably struggling to make friends with other day-laborers while struggling to survive on whatever meager snacks and drinks they
could manage to bring.
For my question to you, Fullback, I want to dig more into the episode's portrayal of heroes and villains. It seemed to me that there was a conscious effort to play up the Tigers' role early on, but to give the SDSU team ample opportunity to stay not only in the game, but in the good graces of the audience. Zach Zenner (a name seriously befitting a Stan Lee superhero alter-ego) was primed as the villain, but he and the rest of the Jacks were surprisingly well-developed for a group unlikely to factor into the Missouri Tigers narrative. They were given the biggest underdog moment of the episode when Zenner's teammate Austin Sumner went down with what was revealed to be a relatively serious injury, and they were given a moment to shine when just after the intermission, they cut the Tigers' lead to 3 on a superbly run series by Sumner's understudy, Zach Lujan.
Do you think this episode set the formula for the season? Will Mizzou be faced with a bit of a struggle every week or will their role as the ostensible hero take center stage in future episodes?
From what I could tell this appears to be a complexly woven tale about the journey of several potential heroes. I think we have one character, Markus Golden, who's set up to be that leading character we, the audience, can easily identify with and makes the show immediately marketable (it's mentioned his nickname is "The Savage" during the course of the game which seems apt considering what we saw of his play). And I think we have our roguish hero: Maty Mauk, whose growth into a hero we'll track through out this season. I chide the directors for falling into that old trope of giving a leading character a unique and alliterative name to make him stand out, and did you notice the sheer number of "M's" used in the cast? Maty Mauk, Marcus Murphy, Mitch Morse, Markus Golden, Mizzou ... it's almost overkill!
But I digress. I do think the mid-episode switch for South Dakota State jarred me a bit, but not as much as how easily he stepped into that role and embraced the challenge. They avoided the easy pitfall of making SDSU "too evil" and instead set them up as anti-villains, driving home the dual nature of the show and making it apparent that, were we watching from "the other sideline" we'd be rooting for the boys in blue instead of black and gold. That being said, it's obvious to me story intends to follow Mizzou's struggles week in and week out in a fashion that's become fairly common in this medium.
As to the larger narrative arc, I think we'll see a few more episodes where the rest of the cast flesh out their identities and we'll get a look at how they'll factor and mesh with who we've already seen. To an extent we've already met an embattled "player": Aarion Penton, who faced an early crisis that, though he forestalled doom this episode, could undoubtedly rear its head to haunt him later in the season. These subtle touches are evident throughout the episode, we can see a similar story of struggle in the plight of Mizzou's kicker: Andrew Baggett, who seems to embody that old cliche of the athlete who is physically capable but mentally fragile. Given we've just been introduced to these characters and this team, what do you make of these performances and more importantly, how they'll relate on a larger scale?
The cast was, like it is in most sports movies, hit or miss. The key players always seem to be well-cast, and so Maty and Markus and Russell and even the struggling players like Aarion and Andrew all show up and invite the viewer to sympathise (for the latter two) or cheer (for the former group). I think keeping the players in uniform helps avoid the pitfalls of the "ragtag" team (think The Bad News Bears or Miracle or The Longest Yard or the remake of The Longest Yard or The Replacements or The Sandlot or Remember the Titans or The Mighty Ducks or The Mighty Ducks 2 or The Mighty Ducks 3).
Where such a large cast falls short is always in the remaining players. The big, lumbering guys who spend most of their time in that seemingly immobile mass in the middle (there - more M's for you...) are pretty underdeveloped, some of them not even getting named in the episode. It will be interesting to track just how many new characters the show can focus on without negatively affecting the audience's ability to keep up.
So here's my final question for you, Fullback: We've spent a lot of time discussing the on-the-field guys, but what did you think about the rest of the cast? I thought it was interesting to have the head coaches for these two very different teams be relatively similar, grizzled veteran types. And I thought the announcers were solid and appropriate; I was pleased the show avoided resorting to stunt casting big-time guys for those roles, which would have dented the realism of the program.
I don't recall seeing the head coach for SDSU, but they certainly spent a lot of time talking about Mizzou's head coach, Gary Pinkel. As is common in these style shows, they emphasize the pressure the head coach is under to perform and they allude to both good and bad seasons in his recent past.
I didn't notice the broadcast guys, which is a good thing as you don't want them hogging the spotlight. I know there have been popular and humorous examples of these characters in other shows, but I just don't think there's room for it in this format. We may see a change in those roles as the season progresses and it is certainly something we may have to address later.
Going with Gary Pinkel for this role is a bold decision since it'd have been simple and predictable to have a big-name guy fill the role. I think it speaks to the kind of story they're trying to tell that they went with a character actor who's put in years in the industry to get this job.
One thing I couldn't help but enjoy was the stereotypical fiery ex-Marine as Defensive Coach, it was obviously in his wheelhouse and makes for an entertaining personality on the sideline. I imagine screen-caps (like the one below) will become a popular sight among the fans.
My final question to you, Switzy: Any final notes or odd comments? And since people feel obligated to give grades, what would you say for this Pilot episode?
Ultimately, I think this pilot shows a good deal of promise, but the verdict is still out. There were some truly captivating moments, especially in the early scenes. But as the episode went on, there was a little too much telling instead of showing. And the redemptions for Aarion and Andrew were a little too neatly wrapped up to feel natural. Russell and Marcus seem like the breakout stars, but can they really sustain the momentum to carry this show through an entire season? I'm not sold yet, but I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what is in store in the next episode. I'll give this one a B-; let's hope for some more consistent characterization around those flashier moments.
I'll second that notion and make it a unanimous B- grade. What does this week's episode have in store? We can't wait to find out! I'll leave you loyal readers with a parting gift I've titled "Russell Hansbrough is too cool to look at explosions"