Director Josh Greenbaum seems to have found a winning formula for digital programming -- be cute, be funny and be about sports. Call him the king of streaming media: His children's golf competition film "The Short Game," which won the Audience Award at SXSW, premiered yesterday on Netflix as the company's first documentary acquisition, and his nonfiction series about mascots "Behind the Mask" is wrapping up a successful first season as an original Hulu series and has already been renewed for a second. The two are heart-tugging, upbeat affairs that cut with schematic precision between a representative array of characters and know to cut away right at exciting moments -- they're documentary comfort food, and clearly they're falling into the right quadrants of appeal for the internet major subscription streaming services.
"The Short Game," which is set at the annual U.S. Kids Golf World Championships for athletes age eight and younger in Pinehurst, NC, is the slicker and less filling of the two productions, following in the tried and true format of "Spellbound" by picking out eight competitors to follow before and during the three-day tournament. These include international golfers like Zama Nxasana from South Africa, the subject with the sunniest disposition in a field of overachievers prone to taking things very seriously, and Jed Dy from the Philippines, a high functioning child with autism and serious talent.
The major contenders, however, are all American, and some are prone to occasionally off-putting displays of kiddie professionalism. There's Allan Kournikova, brother of tennis player Anna, a middle-aged man in a seven-year-old's body who works out with a personal trainer every morning and who gloats "What happened, man?" to his rival after a bad round. His friend and female equivalent Alexa Pano, the reigning girl's champ, observes of her doting, divorced "daddy caddy" that "I don't want him to get married again... it would be annoying having two people talk at the same time."
But even these hardened mini competitors are mostly adorable in interviews and on the course, as are their cohorts, who approach the grown-up game with heart-melting concentration, swinging clubs that look as tall as they are and whispering over putts with their parents or advisors. With 14 cinematographers and an RC Aerial cam credit, the doc is luxe-looking (Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake are among its executive producers), swooping over carefully manicured fairways and catching balls dropping into or just missing the hole, while a narrator explains the action in the style of a commentator on a broadcast tournament.
If there's a hollowness to the film that no amount of pint-size earnestness can fill, it may come down to golf still seeming like a fairly exclusive avocation, with an assumption of money underlying many of these stories. It's only Amari Avery, a fierce competitor with a hot temper from Riverside who shares the same ethnic makeup and birthday as Tiger Wood (hence her nickname "Tigress"), whose narrative carries with it some sense of urgency beyond winning and losing. "I can't afford for her to go to a good college -- that little white ball's going to get her to that level," her father confesses at one point, wiping away tears after a missed stroke. "We're C people -- how am I going to make an A person?" he says of him and his wife, a whole universe of generational class climbing aspirations playing out over those North Carolina greens.
Greenbaum's Hulu series "Behind the Mask," which closes out its first 10-episode season next week, is a little rougher and more endearing, following four mascots of different levels of expertise and pay grade. There's Michael, who plays the unfortunate Rooty the Cedar Tree for his Lebanon, PA high school, and Jersey, who's spent six happy years as a University of Las Vegas undergrad as the Hey Reb! Chad is Tux the Penguin, the mascot for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a minor league hockey team, while Kevin is the pro, the man behind Milwaukee Bucks mascot Bango.
The series also follows a basic schema, each episode intercutting a small, thematically related adventure from each of the four men. Will Michael successfully ask the cheerleader of his dreams to the prom? Will Jersey manage to graduate? How will Chad's visit from his son, who lives in Canada, go? Will Kevin be able to rope in Vanilla Ice as part of his halftime plans?
Sometimes these storylines are obvious filler -- not even a professional mascot is guaranteed to always have enough going on to sustain 10 episodes worth of television. But Greenbaum's chosen his subjects well, fitting the combination of enthusiasm, athleticism and goofy love of performance that doing the job requires. There's little personal glory in being a mascot -- few people know who's inside that costume, there's little pay and few full-time opportunities and you're essentially a clown, despite the chance, in Kevin's case particularly, of getting injured doing some serious stunts. The foursome all represent different personality types you can see thriving when playing this part. Michael, the most heartbreaking, is awkward and painfully sincere, trekking out to cheer on his school's more ignored sports, like the bowling team, and unintentionally asking his best (guy) friend to dance at prom instead of his actual date.
Jersey's outgoing, a natural showman, ridiculously in love with his college while struggling to actually pass his classes -- he'd seemingly be comfortable being Hey Reb! forever, while Chad's a big softie who quit a factory job to live paycheck to paycheck off a mascot gig he loves far more. And Kevin's the most stable of them all, a soft-spoken former gymnast with five kids at home facing the most serious dilemma of the group, as he's set precedents for performing crazy stunts that have left him with a multitude of injuries and major questions about when his career will be over.
Though episodes can feel a little padded, particularly by a tendency to cut right before a stunt to another character, "Behind the Mask" has genuine heart -- maybe because that's what it takes to survive in a side industry that's half performance and half sport, where you'd never be able to pull it off unless you really loved what you were doing.