The League kicks off its final season tonight, one day before the NFL resumes play with a Thursday-night matchup between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and we’re all clearly ready for some football. So with that in mind, we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to a brief history of TV shows built around the gridiron in some way — many of which offered addictive viewing even to those who don’t even care about the sport. Ready, set, hike: It’s time for Total Recall!
By the mid-’80s, cable had enough of a subscriber base to start making its first attempts to lure viewers away from the major broadcast networks, and shows like 1st & Ten were among the earliest — and most successful — efforts. This long-running HBO series started out as a star vehicle for Delta Burke, whose character wins a football team from her ex-husband in their divorce settlement, but Burke’s third-season departure was just one of the many changes the show endured during its 80-episode run, which finally concluded in early 1991 with a cast that by then included Shannon Tweed and O.J. Simpson. Somewhat ironically, the things that arguably set 1st & Ten apart from its Big Three competitors — namely, the profanity and nudity allowed on pay cable — were later edited out when the show made the jump to syndication.
Craig T. Nelson never had much of a chance to show off his comedic chops in movies like Poltergeist, but his imposing stature and gift for playing characters with a gruff demeanor made him the perfect fit for Coach. As Hayden Fox, head coach of a fictional Division I-A college football team in Minnesota, Nelson made a terrific Newhart-style straight man in the midst of a cast of doofus characters (led by Jerry Van Dyke and Bill Fagerbakke) while building long-running rapport with leading lady Shelley Fabares, whose character’s relationship with Fox kept the laughs coming on the homefront. While Coach’s sitcom setup kept the cameras largely off the gridiron, football remained a major component of the show, with pro football stars like Troy Aikman, Mike Ditka, and Eddie George among the many guests making noteworthy cameos during its nearly 200-episode run — and during the final two seasons, the action shifted to the NFL, with Fox and his staff making the jump to the big league to coach an expansion team owned by a scatterbrained widow (Katherine Helmond).
The rare reality series that proves irresistible for football fans, HBO’s Hard Knocks offers a window into the behind-the-scenes ups and downs of life during training camp at an NFL franchise — and one the network and the league have proven impressively adept at continuing over 10 seasons and counting, despite an overall reluctance to participate among most teams. While an ongoing lack of volunteers has occasionally presented problems (and led to the Cincinnati Bengals appearing twice), Knocks has still produced its share of compelling football-driven drama over the years — and with the league implementing a system of enforced participation a couple of seasons ago, the show may have only scratched the surface of its potential.
Long before the NFL (allegedly) strongarmed Sony Pictures into making script changes to Will Smith’s Concussion in order to portray the league in a more favorable light, ESPN discovered just how proactive pro sports can be when it comes to circling the wagons against a perceived threat. For 11 episodes in late 2003, Playmakers enjoyed strong ratings on the network, outpacing everything but its Sunday night NFL and Saturday college football games with a fictional portrayal of pro football players’ lives on and off the gridiron. In spite of the high audience turnout — and critical acclaim that included an AFI TV Award and a GLAAD Media Award — ESPN quickly bowed to pressure from the NFL execs who didn’t take kindly to the show’s depiction of controversial themes like player sexuality, crime, and off-field partying. While ESPN’s close ties with the NFL likely doomed Playmakers before it even aired, the show proved there was plenty of drama to be mined from football players’ lives long after the game clock stopped ticking, and paved the way for similarly themed shows in the future.
It would be putting it kindly to say that most television shows based on films fail to live up to their big-screen inspiration, but Friday Night Lights proved an outstanding exception during its five-season run. Starring Kyle Chandler as the coach of a Texas high school football squad, FNL pivoted away from series producer Peter Berg’s 2004 film of the same name (itself inspired by Buzz Bissinger’s nonfiction book) to delve deeper into the drama-stricken personal lives of its characters, using gridiron action as but one small component of a reliably gripping look at life in 21st century small-town Middle America. Like its characters, the show always seemed to be a decimal point or two away from disaster; in spite of consistent critical acclaim, it spent virtually its entire run on the ratings bubble, continuing under threat of cancellation even after NBC (then struggling to lure audiences to a handful of ratings-starved critics’ darlings) struck a unique co-production deal with DirecTV. Ultimately — again, like many of its blue-collar protagonists — FNL managed to find its own small measure of triumph, closing out its fifth season on its own terms with a series finale that offered closure and bittersweet uplift without resorting to cheap sentimentality.
The rare TV spinoff that logged more seasons than its springboard series, The Game debuted in the fall of 2006 after starting out as a backdoor pilot for UPN’s Girlfriends, following the story of a med student (Tia Mowry) who puts her education on hold in order to join her football-playing boyfriend (Pooch Hall) as he moves to San Diego as a rookie on the fictional Sabers squad. Like almost any series that stays on the air for nine seasons, The Game experienced a lot of change over the years: Both of its original main characters were eventually phased out, and football slowly took a back seat to the various interpersonal schisms that drove the show’s drama, although not completely — the series finale, which aired in August 2015, featured a good old-fashioned comeback win with the playoffs on the line.
Fantasy sports have come a long way from their humble Rotisserie League beginnings, and the same could be said for FX’s The League, which initially seemed reluctant to make the most of its fantasy football-driven premise and spent its first season as just another raunchy cable comedy. The show really hit its stride in subsequent seasons, however, benefiting from the improv-fueled chemistry of a talented cast that includes rising stars Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Mark Duplass, and Katie Aselton, while luring a growing list of NFL stars into the fold for a series of bizarre cameos. Unlike a lot of sitcoms entering their seventh season, The League feels like it could go on pretty much indefinitely — which means the show’s creative team should have plenty left in the tank to make this final frantic battle for the Shiva one to really remember.
Airing for three seasons on Spike TV between January of 2010 and November of 2011, Blue Mountain State turned scripted college football hijinks into reliable ratings for the network, depicting the hard-partying exploits of the players, cheerleaders, and coaches for the titular university’s football squad, the Mountain Goats. With a young cast stocked with fresh faces (including Days of Our Lives vet Darin Brooks and Smallville’s former Aquaman, Alan Ritchson) and seasoned support from former Hill Street Blues star Ed Marinaro as the head coach and Denise Richards as his ex-wife, Blue Mountain State attracted a cult following that was never really reflected in its persistently medium-sized ratings — an audience whose continued clamor for a reunion project lasted well beyond the show’s cancellation, and ultimately translated into a successful Kickstarter campaign for a feature film, which raised nearly $2 million in late 2014.
More in the vein of Coach than, say, 1st & Ten, Necessary Roughness starred Rescue Me vet Callie Thorne as a single mom whose divorce sends her back into the workforce, where she finds employment as a therapist for a pro football team. Although football (and sports in general) were somewhat tangential to the dynamics that drove the show — and were essentially backburnered during the third and final season — Necessary Roughness offered a reliably entertaining if undemanding hour of entertainment during its 38-episode run, and anything that gives Thorne steady work is okay in our book.
Offering the latest example of how thin and blurred the line between TV and film is these days, Ballers stars big-screen hero Dwayne Johnson as an ex-NFL player who struggles to adjust to life after football — in terms of career fulfillment as well as coping with potentially scary health issues that loom after years of physical punishment. Benefiting from Johnson’s own football experience, co-produced by Friday Night Lights vet Peter Berg, and rounded out by a talented cast that includes Rob Corddry and real-life former running back John David Washington, the show got off to a solid start with its first 10-episode order, and has already been renewed by HBO for a second season.