'Playmakers' Fumbles Ball


ESPN, looking to broaden its appeal beyond sports fanatics, is kicking off into the world of scripted drama series with Playmakers, a show depicting the off-the-field lives of the players on the Cougars, a fictional football team, and its coaches, families and owner.

is the brainchild of executive producer John Eisendrath, who is continuing in the same role for ABC's Alias.

In the first two episodes, there's not much that hasn't already been seen in the theatrical Any Given Sunday
or played out to some extent in the real athletes' lives chronicled on SportsCenter. Familiar storylines have been modernized with shiny cars and silk suits, but the network shouldn't count on car-thumping beats to bring ratings.

The linebacker (played by Jason Matthew Smith) who violently walks the line of reality, the pill-popping quarterback (Chris Wiehl) suffering a subpar season, and the running back (Russell Hornsby) fighting for his position against his age, the coach (Tony Denison) and the owner (Bruce Gray) are characters that no doubt inhabit many professional football locker rooms.

The attendant drug abuse, mental instability and chronic pain are all played out, though, before the exploitative womanizing, star-struck cops and patronizing coaches and doctors kick in. The only brief reprieve from the doldrums comes when the out-of-control star running back (Omar Gooding) cleverly (and graphically) attempts to cheat on his full-frontal urine test.

Coupled with a few quality performances, the series strength in the two preview episodes is exceptional production values.

In the end, though, the fate of Playmakers
to entertain over its first season's 11 episodes rests with its ability to audible past its strange beauty to characters developed into something other than a "who's who" of the Betty Ford clinic. In particular, Hornsby's portrayal of the aging running back shows promise beyond one-dimensionality. Given a few more Sundays, one can only hope the story lines vary from the early clichés.

debuts Aug. 26 and will air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (ET).