Test Pilot: File #13, The White Shadow

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Test Pilot #13: The White Shadow

Debut date: November 27, 1978

Series legacy: One of the most well-respected television drama series with a sports backdrop, but not necessarily thought of as a “great” series.

After a short hiatus, Test Pilot is back! Time for more historical pilot analysis – I know, contain your excitement. In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will usually include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series (although this isn’t always the case). I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

For the fourth quartet of Test Pilot files, we are dipping our collective toes back into the pool of a specific genre, just as we did near the end of 2010 with a solid look at the last twenty years of teen dramas. The reason this feature took a minor hiatus is because I was having trouble deciding on where to head next but I think the final choice ended up being a good one. OK, it is probably time that I stop setting this up as if it is some sort of reveal.

Over the next four entries, Test Pilot will be analyzing the sports genre. By that I mean we will be looking at scripted programming that heavily features sports, not news or documentary-style programming about sports. In our culture, there are very few things that are less popular than sports and the relationship between sports and television is well-defined in many ways. Televised sport events are some of the most popular and most-watched things on television, across sport and across television network. From the Super Bowl, to the Masters to the World Series to a random collegiate hockey game, there appears to be an audience for live sports in all corners of television. And of course, programming about sports dominates the dial just the same. Entire networks are dedicated to sports and sports reporting and all four of the major broadcast networks try to integrate as much sports coverage onto their schedules as possible. Most of us love sports and television only strokes that fire within society further.

But despite the overarching dedication to sport and televised sport, fan admiration does not appear to translate to the scripted television realm. Millions of people watch ESPN each day, all day and build their entire lives around televised sports, but the ratings for scripted dramas or comedies featuring sports and the general lack of production of series about sports suggests we like to keep our adoration of “scripted television” and “sports” separate. It seems so odd that two of the major pillars of our society can come together in one way (the televised game or coverage of sports) but not in the other (the fictional, scripted representation of sports). This especially true since sports films tend to do well, or at least moderate so, both with critics and at the box office. Not so on television. Try to Google things like “TV series about sports” or “Sports dramas” or something else similar and your results will come up mostly empty. Try to think about your five favorite series that involved sports. It is okay, I will wait. This is going to take a few minutes, at best. I LOVE sports and I LOVE television, and it took me a moderately long time.

Clearly, I’m being hyperbolic and facetious, but the simple fact of the matter is that although we love scripted television and we love sports – perhaps even more than television – very few creative people have figured out to make a series that combines both of these loves, at least in such a way that we will actually watch.

With this batch of Test Pilot files, we hope to come closer to an answer for why this has happened, not just recently, but for decades: Do the genres of “drama” and “sports” just fail to match, especially from an audience demographic perspective? What actually makes up a series “about” sports or one “featuring” sports? Does the difference matter? How important are the historical contexts? What are the most important identifiable conventions of the sports series?

Of course, there is surely more than one answer to these questions and hopefully by looking at multiple cases over the next few weeks will provide us a bevy of possible suggestions that paint a larger picture of scripted programming about or featuring sports. Some of our choices will be more directly about sports than others, but again, that sort of diversity in the selections will hopefully serve as compelling entry point into the genre. The last quartet focused so closely on one major subject (that being NBC), that it was really easy to sketch out context and make some historical sweeps, but I am unsure if that will be possible here. Well, it’s not impossible clearly, but the lack of major connections between each of the series chosen for this theme will make this more challenging to write, but hopefully better because of it in the end.

For our first excursion into the sports genre, it seemed fitting to start with one of the first and based on a survey of critical response, still one of the best: The White Shadow. Having originally aired from 1978-1981 on CBS, The White Shadow is the oldest series to get the Test Pilot treatment, but its place among the echelon of sports dramas was too appealing to pass up. Armed with a misguided title and a cast mostly full of African-Americans, The White Shadow followed Ken Reeves as he transitioned from an injured NBA player to a high school basketball coach at a run-down school in a bad part of Los Angeles. Partially because the series is so old, neither myself nor this file’s guest writer is overwhelmingly familiar with The White Shadow, but as I am “more familiar” with it, I will be playing the role of veteran viewer for this particularly piece. So let’s do this thing, folks:

I have to admit, I feel like a bad basketball super-fan. I was born and raised in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, which means I was raised on one thing: basketball. I have loved basketball for as long as I can remember and played it as much as could between the ages of like five and sixteen. For the majority of life, basketball defined my identity and although it does not do so anymore, it is still somewhere near the top 10 most important things in my life. I say all this as a primer for the fact that before I realized I wanted to do this batch of files on sports series and subsequently wanted to write about The White Shadow first, I had never seen a single second of it. Thanks to the paratextual spaces of the internet – most notably through ESPN’s Bill Simmons’ constant referencing of it over the years – I am very aware of Shadow and its three seasons-worth of narrative, but before a few weeks ago, I never even watched a clip or two on YouTube.

Of course, this is unfortunate because for all intents and purposes, The White Shadow is the best scripted television series primarily about basketball ever made. I love basketball and I love television and yet I have not seen the program that combines them both so well. Assuming you read the introduction to my portion of this piece, you are now thinking I am part of the problem I am trying to find an answer to. And you would be correct. In any event, once I started actually watching The White Shadow – it’s readily available on Hulu, folks! – I had no desire to stop, which I think is both an impact of my love for basketball and actually how good it is as a series.

Interestingly, even though this is clearly a backwards comparison, The White Shadow reminds me a lot of Friday Night Lights. Some of that has to do with the framework the two series both use in that they primarily focus on the coach and his impact on the players, but it’s also the way in which Shadow does not seem afraid to breathe life into its location and have its characters feel natural and organic to that world. I should follow that up by saying I don’t think a cast full of black characters feels “natural” and “organic” to a lower-income, apparently dangerous world because that’s racist.

But Shadow still accomplishes those goals without seeming patronizing or racist, which is particularly refreshing for late ‘70s television when so many of the African-American characters were adopted by white donors, super-poor, etc. Here, there are moments where it feels like the great white hope of a coach is butting his way into the lives of these black and Hispanic kids in hopes of SAVING THEM and there are some socioeconomic circumstances, but neither device/beat feels is shoved down the audience’s throat, even 33 years later.

If we keep the FNL comparisons going, the pilot to White Shadow is both structurally and thematically similar to the first few episodes of Friday Night Light’s fourth season. Of course, both series borrow and reflect the conventions we’ve seen in countless sports dramas in popular culture about turning the “street” players into a “real basketball team.” What was somewhat surprising about Shadow, however, is how it’s not especially willing to give into the overly dramatic conclusion to that narrative. Many of the players have well-sketched personalities and even though the climax of the pilot episode sees the team winning a game, there’s no major “THANKS COACH” moment. They’re happy to win and they see how Coach Reeves is improving their lives, but it’s not so sweeping and melodramatic.

And in general, there’s an attitude and a bite to this series’ take on the racial and social dynamics within late ‘70s South Central. After the team makes a terrible first impression on him, Reeves meets up with Jim Willis, the black principal of the school and Reeves’ friend from Boston College and Sybil Buchanan, the black assistant principal. As the three of them discuss the team and the players’ personal circumstances, they’re fully open and honest about the players’ criminal activity, lack of motivation towards school, etc. and even though each of them wants to do something about it, they all have a realistic perspective on what’s happening around them.

Reeves wants to help his kids so they can play on the team and become better people, and yeah, that involves making sure they’re in class, possibly on their way to college and not doing drugs or robbing people. But he has no hero complex or idealized visions about making everything turn out amazing for these kids. He, and the other faculty members we meet in the pilot, are really just trying to do the best that they can. Clearly, this thing debuted in the late ‘70s on a major broadcast network so there are moments where it feels a bit soft in the middle, but I was legitimately surprised that the whole thing did not feel that way.

For the most part, this is a pilot that realistically reflects the time at which it was developed in and location it takes place in. The ‘70s and ‘80s in South Central were dominated by the decline in employment for the African-American community, which unfortunately coincided with the rise in crime, drug trade and gang warfare. The quote-unquote wealthier black families began to flee parts of the community as the Crips and Bloods became more and more powerful thanks to the explosion in use/dealing of crack cocaine. Although the pilot episode doesn’t overtly deal with these issues, a quick browsing through episode synopses suggests that The White Shadow had no problems touching on the problems of the time. I would be intrigued to watch other episodes that covered things like drug overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases and more, if only to see how the series handled those “problem”-centric formatted episodes. By the late ‘70s, it wasn’t totally rare to see stories such as these pop up on broadcast television, but when combined with the setting and the characters, I’d have to imagine portions of Shadow appeared novel at the time and those elements still hold up today.

Another interesting element to The White Shadow that had to be difficult to overcome (as far as audiences go) is the general negative opinion of basketball and especially the NBA during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The late ‘70s were something of a disaster for the NBA, as television ratings declined and players started getting hooked on the same drugs that were ruining the South Central Los Angeles community. Obviously, Shadow isn’t explicitly about the NBA, but I would have to imagine that this equation did not seem so appealing to an overwhelming amount of audiences in 1978: ex-NBA player + mostly unknown, black cast + inner city + basketball. The series did air on Monday nights, so clearly CBS, which was in the middle of one hell of a run in the post-“rural purge” era, had some confidence in it and I think for good reason. Despite a formula that appeared to be only moderately successful (the series only lasted three seasons, only one of them full in the traditional form), The White Shadow fits nicely alongside a number of CBS’ other programs at the time, especially those made by Norman Lear. Shadow definitely has a different tone towards the social, political and racial changes than say, All In The Family or Good Times, but it makes sense why the Eyeball would have kept it around for a few years.*

*How crazy is it that CBS was the network that had all these progressive series? What a wild time.

So, that’s all well and good, but what about THE SPORTS? Let’s start with the smaller things. Aesthetically, I was shocked to see that most of the basketball sequences looked fine and the actors all appeared to be decent players.* There is really nothing worse than watching a film or series about sports and having to deal with the terrible fact that actors are short, can’t dribble or pass, etc., and unfortunately, basketball is one of the hardest to fake because you cannot really bring in stunt athletes like you can in football or even baseball. Thankfully, The White Shadow succeeds in looking fairly realistic in its representation of a high school basketball team coached by a former injured NBA player. Moreover, the episode is smart enough to not focus too much on the actual games themselves. The filmed action in sports series/films never really intrigues and luckily, there is enough plot to go around that it’s not really necessary to build everything around gameplay. And finally, of course the climax game comes down to the last second. I’ll have to keep count as to how many of those kind of scenes are in the series we watch in this quartet.

*Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the team is supposed to look terrible in the beginning anyway.

But there’s more important stuff. One of the primary things I wanted to discuss with these files is the difference between a series about sports and a series featuring sports. I do believe some distinction needs to be made between the two. Generally, I’d define a series about sports as one that allows sports, or sports-related plots spur on the action and the character development. As series featuring sports basically uses a team structure or game narrative to create something slightly better than set-dressing – but barely. I would argue that Friday Night Lights is a series about sports, one where high school football not only drives the narrative, but creates the frame in which the community of Dillon, Texas is built and fractured. There are other stories that the writers of that series told, but most of them had to do with sports or were impacted by the community’s focus on sports.

On the other hand, I would identify something such as One Tree Hill as a series featuring sports. The WB/CW soap is a supped-up and insane teen drama that happens to integrate basketball into the narrative. A lot of the story is built around sports, but it doesn’t really have to be. The writers could remove the sports stuff from OTH and it would functionally be the same series. The FNL folks could not do that. My initial assumption is that audiences respond more to series that feature sports because its importance in the narrative can be expanded and reduced when necessary. Of course, narratively, series that are actually about sports seem to be more successful because they can examine the impact of sports’ place within a community.

Based on those comparisons, you can probably guess that I find The White Shadow to be a series about sports. Again, I think it serves as a nice retro representation of what something like FNL became so many years later in that the sport of basketball provides as a nice entry point into the DNA of a specific location. Football might be more important to the people of Dillon than basketball is to the people of South Central, but the connections are there. And again, the sporting backdrop opens things up for stories about the social, economic or racial tensions in this specific community. Coach Reeves bumps up against those tensions when trying to better his team and in doing so, the series gets to comment on them in whatever way they deem fit. That’s one of the primary reasons the pilot episode of The White Shadow is so successful narratively, and unfortunately, probably one of the primary reasons why it wasn’t shockingly successful with audiences. This is certainly a trend we will look at further in future entries.

-CB

Alright, now taking the “newbie viewer” role is one of my best friends and another protege at my old college newspaper, Adam Lukach. Adam’s pop culture sweetspot is most certainly music, so you should check out his reviews for the IDS’ WEEKEND section and on his personal Tumblr, but he is still an avid

television watcher and a pretty big sports fan as well. You can also follow Adam on Twitter if you’d like. Adam, take it away bro:

Let me first start by thanking my former editor and fellow Smallville lover Cory Barker for having me on his fine Test Pilot series. Let me then say I’m a little upset he didn’t have me on to talk about The OC. But, bygones be bygones.

So The White Shadow. Cory opened up his discussion of the series with an interesting observation that there appears to be very little common area in a Venn-diagram of sports and scripted television. Personally, the extent of my sports-TV experience have been those incidental Clark Kent-as-high-school-quarterback storylines on Smallville and the basketball part of One Tree Hill that just became a reluctant obligation after a while. I don’t watch Friday Night Lights, so this content is new to me.

I think one part of the frequent disconnect between fiction and sports is the quality of actual play on camera. It’s hard to take a movie seriously that showcases subpar athletic ability because it just doesn’t look right. It’s really as simple as that. We Americans like all of our action to look good, hence why people don’t like the WNBA (sorry ladies).

Here, I was able to buy into most of the action as, in fact, being more than adequate. Ken Howard moves pretty well (though his jumper could use some work) and the majority of the basketball players are definitely capable. In fact, they look so absolutely out of control early on that it sometimes looked forced.

Another thing that makes sports-scripts suck: melodrama of Renee Zellweger-like proportions that make for cookie-cutter bouts of inspiration. That problem is almost nonexistent here. Shadow avoids hints of underlying ignorance or prejudices by being genuine and earnest, to the point of over-acting at times. But I guess that’s late ‘70s television. What it actually does well is NOT over-doing it. None of the plot rams itself down your throat, nor does any of it ask you to be wildly inspired after 48 minutes. Victories are modest and actions benefit from a sense of banality, such as Reeves’ brother-in-law’s disappointment once he and his wife will no longer be babysitting Hayward’s little brother.

In fact, the story was quite intriguing. A lot of common sports devices were in place, less-privileged athletes, washed up coach, racial differences, but taking place in LA during this time period allowed Shadow a platform, and from a glance at an episode guide and a pilot viewing, it isn’t afraid to take advantage of it. It dives fully into the cultural differences that divide the coach from his players and is completely unafraid to explore them, but with the same earnest perspective that the rest of the series possesses. The series has a clear conscience and is not reluctant to behave in such a way, much like its main character. Reeves wants to be at Carver High – he’s not a jaded old pro. He believes that he can make a difference, at least on the basketball court, and takes measures to get there. However, with the way Shadow intertwines the environment of South Central, to not just basketball, but Carver High in general makes Reeves’ job description inherently that much more.

So it shouldn’t come across as odd that the scenes with Reeves and his players are some of the best. They both benefit from a mutual frankness and a respect that, from the players’ side at least, appears to be deservingly earned when Reeves beats Coolidge and Thorpe in 2-on-1. What is surprising, then, is that the scenes I enjoyed the least were between Reeves and his peers, principal Jim Willis and vice-principal Sybil Buchanan. Starting with the opening scene in which Willis, Reeves’ old roommate, verbally rough-houses Reeves into taking the job, the exchanges between those characters were often trite: voices were quickly raised, dumb jokes and even dumber insults were being levied with each breath and every action seemed to be an overreaction. Having said that, it could just be another sign of the series’ earnest tendencies and it could also be attributed to the oft-rushed progressions of a pilot episode.

What’s most promising to be so far with the White Shadow is how adeptly it handles the juxtaposition of Reeves and Carver High, allowing for a sensibility that’s necessary for any culturally-aware piece of media.  In no way does it condescend to the level of a Blind Side, nor does it shy away or underplay off-court issues that the players are having. Howard plays a convincingly hard-trying Reeves and, in turn, fosters better performances from his African-American and Hispanic player costars. The White Shadow has the sports and the story right, and in any sports script, those are the two hardest things to nail down. Wash those two things down with a glass of era relevance, and you’re looking at a good series.

-AL

Conclusions on legacy: Honestly better-than-advertised, particularly of-its-era, but not so much so that it feels totally out of touch with today’s basketball culture. Rightfully well-regarded in the “sports drama” circles and perhaps worth watching for multiple episodes on Hulu, where they are all available.

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