ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series has been critically acclaimed and lauded for the almost full year that it has aired, so it hardly needs a ringing endorsement from a comatose blog. That being said, the series deserves all the credit that has been heaped upon it.
On the surface, it seems like such a simple idea. Take a bunch of relatively under-explored sports stories from the last 30 years, and get mostly established filmmakers to delve into the compelling aspects of those stories. But the execution has been superb, and here's hoping that the series continues moving forward past the currently slated 32 documentaries scheduled.
I haven't been able to catch every documentary...far from it actually, but here are my reviews of the ones that I have been lucky enough to catch. Because who doesn't want to read something critiquing a TV series by someone who is neither a writer or a TV critic?
First off, the 30 for 30s I haven't caught (actual titles unavailable due to laziness):
The Band That Wouldn't Die - Story of the Baltimore Colts marching band. I'd like to see this one eventually, hopefully it will be heavier on the Colts, their connection to the city of Baltimore and their subsequent departure than actual band-related stuff.
Who Killed the USFL - The USFL has always intrigued me, seeing as how some of the best NFL players from my childhood got their start there. Add in Herschel Walker, Donald Trump, and this is a must see.
Ali/Holmes - Muhammad Ali stories have never interested me, yet I'm always glad when I read/watch anything featuring him. Fascinating subject. If I ever catch this doc, I doubt I'll be disappointed.
Len Bias - Enough already. Every year on the 'anniversary' of his death, we are regaled with stories of this supposed legend and how he was to be Jordan's rival, etc. etc. etc. Others have done a better job deconstructing the myth surrounding this guy, so I won't expound on it. Let's just move on.
Jimmy the Greek - An alleged gambling drunk with a penchant for running his mouth? Count me in.
Winning Time, Reggie Miller vs. the Knicks - By all accounts, this was a fantastic piece, and I still remember watching these matchups from my adolescent years. That said, I find it slightly weird that a documentary focuses on a bunch of non-NBA (and sometimes non-Conference) finals series between two teams that ultimately never won shit. It would be like a filmmaker breaking down those epic round 1 matchups between the Hawks and Pistons from the mid-90s.
Silly Little Game - I already hate hearing people talk about fantasy sports. I don't want to watch a 2-hour documentary where people talk about fantasy sports.
16th Man - Didn't see Inviticus, don't plan on seeing the real life version. Rugby? Apartheid? Not a fan of either.
Big Air - I saw some of the most recent X-games. It captured my attention briefly before I changed the channel and put on the mediocre, yet enjoyable, Stepbrothers. I imagine I would do likewise with this doc about Matt Hoffman.
And now, in reverse order of awesomeness, the 30for30s I have seen:
8. Run Ricky Run - I still say Ricky Williams is the greatest college running back I have ever seen. His career arc could probably never be duplicated, and that is fascinating in and of itself. However, some parts of this doc...his stoner friends, lack of affection for his kids, his homely mistresses, were just kinda creepy. And writing that is actually making me rethink my own life, I'm just realizing...natch.
7. Straight Outta LA - Ice Cube, NWA, Snoop, the old Raiders and their batshit crazy fans...all enjoyable. Unfortunately, all that wasn't enough to make up for a time line that didn't add up (i.e. the Raiders sucking ass when NWA was ascending) and two stories that ultimately, as much as Ice Cube tried, weren't really intertwined.
6. Little Big League - Combined one of my favorite sports narratives (the dominant youth team coming of age, ala Hoop Dreams or the book Boys of Crenshaw) and one of my least favorite sports narratives (Baseball as a metaphor of life, waxing poetic about a sport declining in popularity). Enjoyed it more than I thought.
5. Jordan Rides the Bus - Great subject matter, disappointing execution. Who gives a shit about his real estate agent? Was anyone not aware of how competitive and how much of a hard worker MJ was? More info about adjustments to life in the minor leagues, inside stories about what it was like to be his teammate or play against him would have been interesting. Repeated stories about his work ethic and how impressive his .200 batting average were got old quickly.
4. No Crossover: The Allen Iverson Trial - Fascinating material. Really changed the way you could view AI. That said, this did not need to be two hours. We get it. Hampton, Virginia has racial issues. These kids were wronged (Maybe. The film seemed to simply expect the audience to take the side of the accused black youths.). Could have been done in an hour.
3. Guru of Go - I wanted to hug random strangers on the side of the road after seeing this story of Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount teams. The impending buildup to Hank Geathers death was painful, but inevitable. The recounting of their run through the 1990 NCAA tournament was exhilarating. Very, very heavy material. Not sure I could or would even want to sit through this one again, but I am glad I did.
2. June 17, 1994 - Interesting strategy with this one...no narrator, just film clips. It was cool how they tried to throw in Arnold Palmer's final US Open round, the beginning of the World Cup, and Junior Griffey's 200th (or whatever) career homerun, but all I (or most anyone) will remember from this day was everything OJ and how that pre-empted the NBA finals. That other stuff was just filler. Still, it was captivating to re-live the massive shitstorm that was the OJ story that day. I think we can all thank the powers that be that Fox News and CNN weren't the 24-hour news behemoths that they are today on June 17, 1994.
1a. Da U - Total Copout, picking two #1s. Luckily, nobody is reading this. By far and away, the most entertaining of all the docs. Loved the story of Michael Irvin claiming Dolphins players were begging Miami college kids to get them into da club. Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, VinnyT, Canes players wearing camo to the Fiesta Bowl, you couldn't miss with this doc. Truly a tour de force. You can't usually say this with documentaries, but this would be enjoyable to re-watch. Only loses a few points for acting as if Butch Davis and the uptight administration ended a great run, when it actuality, it was probation that hurt the Canes in the mid-90s, only to have Butch Davis bring them back to relevance and assemble the most talented collegiate team of the last 30 years.
1b. The Two Escobars - This felt as if I was watching a real movie. Seriously, it was like the sequel to City of God. Could you imagine a prominent US athlete being thrown in jail and missing the world's biggest sporting event because he was helping a drug lord funnel money to kidnappers? The stacked Columbian national soccer team shitting the bed at the '94 World Cup would have been an incredible enough story, through in the drug-funded soccer leagues, Pablo Escobar, that one soccer player with the crazy hair that was recognizable even to kids like myself who didn't give a shit about soccer, and the fact that the country's best defenseman was killed not so much for scoring a goal in his own net, but moreso for talking shit to the wrong people at a club, and well, that is just an incredible, sad story. One of those things you're watching and you can believe took place only 15 years ago.
There are still plenty of docs coming up. The Marcus Dupree one looks good, as does the Tupac/Tyson one and the SMU doc (always wondered why they were randomly good in the 80s). Hell even the one about the gay NASCAR driver seems slightly intriguing, if only for the WTF factor. In any case, we can all agree that this original programming by ESPN beats the hell out of Playmakers, or any of those made-for-TV movies they made in the mid-aughts. ALL I WANNA DO IS RACE DADDY.