ESPN's 'Quiet Triumph of Storytelling' a Bold Celebration

Media Reviews for Media People: ESPN's '30 for 30'

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When it comes to touting music, movies, books or TV shows I really really really like, I tend to cross the line between enthusiastic advocacy and combative over-promotion. I sent so many copies of "American Tabloid" and "I Love You, Beth Cooper" to friends that I found myself on the receiving end of a U.S. Postal Service restraining order. My inability to comprehend the li'l sister's decision not to re-up her HBO subscription for season four of "The Wire" eventually boiled over into a hostage situation. I am capable of great feats of annoyance.

Well, the roommate/Missus-To-Be better gird herself for a Larry-generated hype tsunami, because I've latched onto a series that threatens to enthrall me through 2010: ESPN's "30 for 30" sports documentary series, which is as ambitious an undertaking as anything the network has ever attempted. Hell, it might be one of the most ambitious projects in the history of TV.

Set to coincide with the network's 30th year on the air, the series tasks 30 filmmakers with creating 30 documentaries on a range of sports-related topics from the last 30 years, giving them access to the extensive ABC/ESPN library of footage. The producers chose their subjects wisely, eschewing ratings bait like Michael Vick and the circa-1993 Dallas Cowboys in favor of issues and personalities either under the radar or ripe for reexamination. In the hands of some of the most capable filmmakers in sports (Ron Shelton, Albert Maysles, Dan Klores, Jon Hock, Steve James) and out of sports (Peter Berg, Barry Levinson, John Singleton, Barbara Kopple), these topics come back to life. You haven't heard these stories before -- or if you have, you haven't heard them told this way.

As a result, the "30 for 30" project comes across less as a look-at-us! celebration of the network's omnipresence than as a quiet triumph of storytelling. And yes, I realize that this may be the first time the word "quiet" has ever been used to describe anything peripherally related to ESPN. There's not an ounce of self-congratulation here, nothing about how ESPN reinvented the sports-media landscape (which it did). Sometimes, you don't have to shout to be heard loud and clear, you know?

The flicks, which clock in at around 60 minutes each, begin airing Tuesday nights starting next week. Based on the first four -- revisionist takes on the Gretzky trade ("Kings Ransom") and the USFL ("Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?"), a history of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band ("The Band That Wouldn't Die"), and an intimate deconstruction of the Ali/Holmes fight ("Muhammad and Larry"), I don't know exactly what to expect from the ones to follow.

That's a blessing. Given the glut of patched-together reality programming on TV that aspires to documentary status, we've lost our capability to be surprised. The "30 for 30" films I've seen so far, however, boast wildly diverse approaches, each meticulously and sharply observed.

The Ali/Holmes film -- if you forced me to choose, my favorite from the first batch -- unveils a wealth of unaired pre-fight footage: Ali performing magic tricks, Holmes blithely predicting he'll whup the aging champ. The piece on the Colts band works as both a civic tale and a personal one; let's agree not to allow Barry Levinson to stray outside the borders of his beloved Baltimore. The USFL doc questions the conventional wisdom that the league failed miserably, identifying a villain of sublime oiliness, Donald Trump, in the process. It's all new, all untainted by bluster or film-school flourish, and it's all easily, compulsively entertaining.

Like many unrepentant sports dorks, I have a complicated relationship with the ESPN brand. I love the network's less-bombastic, more-thoughtful efforts ("Outside the Lines," "E:60," all things Ron Jaworski). I spend more time with the ESPNews ticker than I do with any other media entity or human being. On the other hand, I've come to loathe "SportsCenter," the faux-chumminess and forced belly laughs of the network's pre-game shows and the brand's unfortunate tendency toward hype-generation -- like this week's announcement of a "body" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Suffice it to say that "30 for 30" redeems the network's dopier moments and then some. I will watch every moment of every "30 for 30" documentary; if you have even a fleeting curiosity about recent sports history, you should as well.

I don't know if there's another media entity that has the will or resources to pull off a large-scale, decades-spanning project like "30 for 30" -- maybe CNN could make 44 documentaries on U.S. Presidents for its almost 30 years? -- but I'd sure love to see somebody try. With "30 for 30," ESPN thinks big, and, for the first time in a while, serves up a series that affirms the net's self-anointment as a worldwide leader. As blurb-bait-y as this may sound, "30 for 30" is a grand, stunning achievement.

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(Sort-of conflict of interest disclaimer: I write stuff about sports for CBS

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