‘The Cost of Winning’ Review: HBO’s High School Football Doc Series Always Could Go Deeper

There's plenty to latch onto in this look at a year in the life of a Baltimore-area powerhouse, but a shortened runtime ends up shrinking the storytelling field.
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The Cost of Winning [HBO] Review: Football Documentary Series Is Slim
SAVE ME TOO -- "Episode 1" -- Pictured: Lennie James as Nelly -- (Photo by: Alison Painter/Sky UK Limited/Peacock)
The Cost of Winning [HBO] Review: Football Documentary Series Is Slim
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It’s rare to come across a documentary series that feels like it should be longer. In a corner of the TV world where runtimes can overinflate and attention can wane fairly easily, the frequent argument for these shows is to keep them tighter and more narratively compact.

The reverse ends up being true for “The Cost of Winning,” a new HBO series following the 2019 football season of the Baltimore-area, nationally recognized athletics powerhouse St. Frances Academy. With a team made up of plenty of college recruits and a schedule of high-profile opponents across the country, the show makes the argument that the Panthers carry the weight of expectations faced by few others at the high school level.

But while it threads the needle at points between adopting the styles of the Netflix junior college football series “Last Chance U” and the long-running HBO training camp staple “Hard Knocks,” this is a group that could give rise to a more thorough profile if not confined to a season of four half-hour chunks. For efficiency’s sake, too many of the threads in this season that could sustain entire episodes of their own get buried underneath the overwhelming drive to fit in everything from one end of the schedule to the other.

Any show that takes this approach to a football team has a fundamental choice to make of how much to weigh the in-game action/preparation with players’ and coaches’ lives off the field. In doing so, no overview of the team is complete without a look at the neighborhood surrounding them. There are discussions of the threat of gun violence, some barbershop conversations, and a few off-campus jogs and meals. The opening episode also highlights the proximity of St. Frances Academy itself to a local prison. But one of the earliest signs that “The Cost of Winning” can’t fully process the scope of this story is that it doesn’t get the chance to situate viewers in the Baltimore city atmosphere.

It’s inevitable that shows like this spend a lot of time underlining how these players see football as a way ahead, if not a way out. Even as “The Cost of Winning” takes a lot of the “building character” football infrastructure at face value, just by documenting this season, you can see how across multiple levels of competition, this is a system that treats players as cogs in an ongoing machine. There’s a certain emphasis on team camaraderie, but the chyrons for each player still list where they’ve committed to going once they graduate (or if those offers haven’t quite come in yet).

The Cost of Winning HBO Team
“The Cost of Winning”HBO

A show like “Last Chance U” draws a lot of its value from giving players some autonomy over their own story, even in one of society’s most rigid structures. With so little runway to be able to tell the stories of individuals rather than the team, “The Cost of Winning” does manage to single out students from the whole. Not all of them play at vaunted skill positions. Some are captains, but others are players who watch mostly from the sideline, striving to one day sharpen their skills to be out on a field.

But “The Cost of Winning” barrels forward at such a quick pace that most of those chances to get to know them as people rather than players feel rushed. There are spontaneous weight room dance moments, many of them spurred on by senior (and likely audience favorite) Jon Wallace. We see a handful of players in the classroom or consulting their academic advisors about their college futures. Still, so much of these players’ solo interview time is spent with them confronting the trauma of their past. Overcoming adversity is central to many a football story, but focusing on that alone can sometimes make it hard to see the person in full.

The biggest issue working against “The Cost of Winning” is that all of these glimpses are truncated in service of making time for showing the team’s on-field exploits. Yet the immense weight of a football season grows even heavier while only having four half-hours to capture it in full. The in-game action rarely moves beyond a simple highlight reel — the team’s most emotional game of the season runs the equivalent length of a Previously On for some bigger story. In rushing through these sequences, the viewer loses an appreciation of the skill that these players have in the first place, leaving head coach (and major program funder) Biff Poggi to fill in with the usual football platitudes about the importance of execution or playing up to potential.

Poggi is another “The Cost of Winning” wild card. He becomes the storytelling stopgap measure, connecting the dots between successes and failures while giving overviews of certain players’ backgrounds and performance capabilities. Few shows like this can survive without a coach who has a certain mixture of gregariousness, transparency, and self-awareness. The series never really has the proper room to look at his role in the team, to take stock of his leadership methods, or fully address the way that others in the community see his recruiting tactics. Aside from some noting some possible counterclaims early on, football as an unqualified good serves as the foundation for the series.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect what is, in practice, an extended news magazine-style profile to effectively challenge its own premise. It’s just hard to see how this series couldn’t benefit from a greater opportunity for introspection on all levels. In the process, even the title of a show ends up being a kind of mislabeling. There’s always a certain price to success, but “The Cost of Winning” glances over a lot of what goes into the final accounting.

Grade: B-

“The Cost of Winning” airs over two nights, November 10 and 11, beginning at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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