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Critics Pick the Best Scripted Sports Shows Ever — IndieWire Survey

Clear eyes. Full hearts. "Friday Night Lights" can't lose, right?

Kyle Chandler, "Friday Night Lights"

Kyle Chandler, “Friday Night Lights”

NBC-TV/REX/Shutterstock

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Which is your favorite scripted TV show about sports? Old and current shows are fair game.

June Thomas (@junethomas), Slate

I was a big fan of the Freeform show “Make It or Break It,” about the lives of a group of elite gymnasts working toward their dream of competing in the Olympics. Even typing that sentence, I know how hokey it sounds, and yes, it touched on all the clichés about women’s gymnastics – eating disorders, overburdened parents, inappropriate relationships with coaches – but you know what, all those things bubble up in the real sport with depressing regularity.

The show had more than its fair share of bad luck – one of the main actresses got pregnant and had to drop out of the show before her storyline had played out (there’s no way to hide a baby bump in a “leo”), one of the carefully developed love interests left without warning when he got a part in a network drama, etc. Still, it was the rare show that mined interpersonal teenage drama without resorting to overfamiliar high-school tropes (elite athletes don’t need no stinking high school!), and to exploit the huge global drama of sacrificing a normal life for the unlikely chance of being one of the handful of Americans who get to compete at a quadrennial event that represents the highest level in their sport.

"Make It or Break It"

“Make It or Break It”

Freeform

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

I could get cute and pick “Sports Night” or “The White Shadow” or “Survivor’s Remorse” or any of a number of fine scripted series set in or around the world of sports that are not called “Friday Night Lights.” But it’s “Friday Night Lights” and it’s not close. Great drama on and off the field, from the first episode (Street’s injury, Saracen’s scramble) to the last (can the Lions win a title before they cease to exist?). Clear eyes, full hearts, I will be shocked if this loses the poll.

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

C’mon, the only answer is “Friday Night Lights.”

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Look, you’re going to get a ton of “Friday Night Lights” responses here, including my own, because “Friday Night Lights” is the best. In an effort to be somewhat different from others, however, allow me to provide you with some .gifs which prove the point.

Texas Forever.

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

“Friday Night Lights.” Anyone who says differently is lying, hasn’t seen “Friday Night Lights,” or is answering with “Sports Night,” which is more about sports broadcasting than it is about sports. Of course, the trick to getting the sports-agnostic into “Friday Night Lights” is saying that “Friday Night Lights” is about the town where the football is played, not about the football that’s played in the town, but that’s also a little white lie, too. As much as it’s about the fictional burg of Dillion, Texas, “Friday Night Lights” is also a stirring tribute to the unifying power of athletics. The highest of “Friday Night Lights’” highs occur off the field, but the show did have a knack for dramatizing the unpredictable outcome of a bunch of Texan teens sweating it out during what would merely be a pit stop for some, but would be the culmination of their life’s achievements for others.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

First of all, nothing beats live sports. One day I’ll tell you about the time I gave myself knee tendinitis while watching swimming. Anyway, in the interest of not picking the obvious “Friday Night Lights,” I’ll give the nod to “Sports Night.” It’s not about a sport, but it was so sharp, witty, ahead of its time and gone too soon. The laugh track wasn’t gone fast enough though. “7 Days in Hell” was fab, but I’m still waiting for a show about my beloved tennis (yes, I’m aware of “Phenom.” No, I never watched). I cannot adequately describe how disappointed I was when Rob Lowe’s “The Pro” wasn’t picked up to series. Probably as disappointed as I was when “The Grinder” was canceled.

"Playmakers"

“Playmakers”

ESPN

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I have a suspicion that a lot of my colleagues are going to pick “Sports Night” or “Friday Night Lights,” which are both great choices, but I’m going to offer up something a little different and name “Playmakers” as my pick. It aired on ESPN in 2003, and was the highest rated series on the network other than actual football. But after 11 episodes, ESPN cancelled it because the show’s provocative portrayal of its professional football-playing characters threatened the network’s relationship with the NFL.

What I love about this is that it’s pretty rare (if ever) for an American institution to publicly insist that an inflammatory TV show be taken off the air, with the punishment being a loss of a lucrative partnership. The NFL not wanting us to watch “Playmakers” just made everyone want to watch “Playmakers” even more, though ESPN did bow immediately to the league’s pressure. The thing is, it’s not like “Playmakers” was a fantastic series, but it was successful in both its super soapy drama, and in its portrayal of the pressures and struggles pro athletes face off the field. In the end, the NFL was adamant about keeping up their carefully crafted facade, and ran the show off the airwaves. But for daring to lift the curtain on the NFL’s darker side (in such an entertaining way), “Playmakers” should not be forgotten.

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I’m not the complete opposite of a sports fan, but very close. And even I know the obvious winner here is “Friday Night Lights” — one of the best dramas on TV, let alone about high school sports and small town life – with Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” the obvious Number Two. So I’m going to write here as if the question actually was “What’s the best scripted TV show on sports that isn’t ‘FNL’ or ‘Sports Night’?” focusing on a couple of older shows that might not get much love, otherwise.

First, is CBS’ 1978 series “The White Shadow,” which featured Ken Howard as a former NBA star who gets injured and winds up becoming a basketball coach at a mostly black and Hispanic high school in South Central Los Angeles. Created by Gwyneth’s dad Bruce Paltrow, the series was a rare TV show featuring a largely non-white cast that tackled authentic, serious issues and came off a bit like an Americanized version of Sidney Poitier’s “To Sir, With Love,” reversing the races of teacher and students. Next, I loved HBO’s 1984 comedy “1st & Ten,” a show about a woman who took over ownership of a pro football team, which made me an early fan of both Delta Burke (pre-“Designing Women”) and “Chicago P.D.’s” Jason Beghe. It was explicit and daring at a time when most TV wasn’t much of either, and hinted at the power of premium cable shows to subvert traditional TV archetypes. But the show pretty much self-destructed after Burke left in 1986 and both O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath made appearances, so it wasn’t perfect.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

I guess this one is going to come down to how “clever” anybody wants to be. If you wanted to take out the episodes that deal directly with sports — “Homer at the Bat,” etc — “The Simpsons” could deliver around a season of great episodes. “Sports Night” is about the coverage of sports, rather than sports, but it also spread a great season of TV across two seasons. “My Boys” and “The Odd Couple” are also very fine shows about people reporting on sports that aren’t really “sports shows.” “The League” was a very fine, at times exceptional, show about fantasy sports, but very rarely about actual sports. The recently deceased “Survivor’s Remorse” excelled at family comedy and social commentary and had basketball as its backdrop, but since we never saw a second of its main character playing basketball, it probably can’t count. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s favorite sports show is probably “Ballers.” I’d want to quickly point to “Pitch” and “GLOW” as very fine recent shows about sports.

But, cleverness aside, this poll is going to just be people answering “Friday Night Lights” or people admitting they haven’t watched “Friday Night Lights,” because that’s the only answer and I say that as somebody who has often used the whole, “It’s a show about sports, but it’s not really a show about sports!” line, which is utterly BS because of course “Friday Night Lights” is a show about sports. It just happens to also be a show about the economic layers of small town life, a show about blue collar Texas, a show about high school and, yes, a show about a serial killer named Landry. You need only look at how many times I’ve given “Friday Night Lights” as an answer to Indiewire questions to know how many things “Friday Night Lights” is about. But it’s also a show about sports and, without a doubt, the best show about sports ever made.

"Footballers' Wives"

“Footballers’ Wives”

ITV

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

“Footballers Wives”! For five seasons from 2002 to 2006, this British soap was “Empire” meets “Desperate Housewives” crossed with professional UK soccer and oh. My. God. Centered around the Earls Park Football Club, the men on the Sparks team rarely actually played soccer (although the were half-naked in the locker room A LOT) and really, the sport was tertiary to the women in their lives and how wickedly crazy they could get to keep up their lavish lifestyle. They were spray-tanned, baby-swapping, secretly-drugging hoots led by Laila Rouass’s Bollywood exile Amber Gates and Zoe Lucker’s HBIC Tanya Turner, kind of the Alexis Colby of the crew. At one point, they were all actually joined by the original “Dynasty” icon when gamely Joan Collins showed up for a guest arc in the final series. How “FW” never became a bigger hit in the U.S. is beyond me. ABC even shot a pilot adaptation set within the NFL from Bryan Singer called “Football Wives” with Lucy Lawless, Gabrielle Union, James Van der Beek, “Suits” Sarah Rafferty and Eddie Cibrian. And it was just as juicy. Shame they fumbled on that one.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Are there options other than “Friday Night Lights”? Sure, “The White Shadow.” “Bay City Blues” was a weird little treat. “Pitch” deserved better than it got. I just spent a bunch of time thinking about the short-lived tennis sitcom “Phenom.” But the answer to this has to be “Friday Night Lights”!

And since I assume everybody else answered “Friday Night Lights,” I’m going to leave it there and return to my 10-part fan novel, “Buddy Garrity: A Friend in Need.”

"Eastbound & Down"

“Eastbound & Down”

HBO

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

“Eastbound & Down.” The heightened egos, the absurdist levels of self-importance, the Tao of side-kick Stevie…Danny McBride perfectly captured the “big fish little pond” glory days of a has-been baseballer with all the right cliches of a sports legend in his own mind.

Kenny Powers had pitching talent that leads him to baseball’s big leagues. But his insufferable mullet wearing, lazy, unethical and absolutely gargantuan ego made this a hilarious sort of road to redemption story with a side trip to the Mexican leagues that was sidesplittingly wrong and hilarious on so many counts.

McBride played Powers with such a focused veracity that this character will live in TV perpetuity like Archie Bunker. The show elevated the star of his long-suffering April, Katy Mixon, and forever endeared me to the actor Steve Little as Stevie Janowski, Kenny’s unwavering debased at every turn aide de camp.

Guest stars included Will Ferrell (a producer as well) plus Eduardo “Piolín” Sotelo, Matthew McConaughey, Jason Sudeikis, Lily Tomlin, Ken Marino, Omar Dorsey, Michael Pena and Don Johnson as Kenny’s dad on the lam – absolute perfection.

Tasteless human interactions, half-baked plans, less than lofty ideals with suspect end game results, Powers represented all the exaggerated and negative cliches in American sports with a big fat Flag wrapped around his character like a “braggadocious” bombastic burrito of Yankee oblivion. I miss Powers.

Pilot Viruet (@pilotbacon), Vice

I can’t decide if “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” or “In The House” counts because neither are specifically about sports but just feature athletes in ridiculous situations (a former basketball play turned coach, a football player (LL Cool J!) who rents out his house to a family) but both are warm, funny, family sitcoms that I loved growing up. (Now, if only Hulu can get “In The House” streaming!) But, more recently, it would be “Survivor’s Remorse” which unfortunately just aired its series finale on Oct. 15. “Survivor’s Remorse” was a surprising love for me – the elevator pitch about a talented basketball player moving to Atlanta with his family didn’t immediately grab me -but it grew into one of my favorite shows on air, one that I would watch every week and then marathon the season right after each one ends. It reminds me a bit of those earlier sitcoms I mentioned (it’s also warm, darkly funny, and values the family dynamics over the athletic storylines—though there are plenty of plots focused on Cam’s career) but it’s decidedly adult. It’s not overly sexualized or anything, but it just featured adults speaking frankly about adult matters in a way that seemed real. Plus, it features one of my favorite queer characters: M-Chuck (Erica Ash), a lovingly foul-mouthed woman with a thick Dorchester accent who never once takes shit from anyone. It’s a shame that it’s already over, but I hope people at least check it out.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

I can’t believe Liz didn’t include the only .gif you need for this, but thanks for making my blurb easy:

Parks and Recreation Amy Poehler Friday Night Lights

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: TIE: “Better Things” and “The Good Place” (four votes each)

Other contenders: “Mindhunter” (three votes), “The Deuce” (two votes), and “Nathan for You” (one vote)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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