It’s a safe bet the Cincinnati Bengals weren’t chosen for a second go-round on Hard Knocks because HBO executives decided they were the most compelling NFL team of 2013. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a good team this upcoming season (so please hold your fire, Cincy die-hards), it just means that Hard Knocks is a reality show, and as such, it thrives on big personalities and big drama. Surely HBO would have preferred the Patriots, with the specter of Aaron Hernandez hanging over them and the unintentional comedy that is Tim Tebow in camp, but fat chance that was going to happen; or the Eagles, with the Riley Cooper controversy swirling; or one of the most recent Super Bowl contenders, the Ravens or the 49ers. Most teams simply don’t want the distraction or potential bad publicity. Really, what’s the upside to Tom Brady or Michael Vick or the Harbaugh brothers?
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, on the other hand, had no problems with the NFL Films cameras the first time around, so his team is back for another season. But the Bengals aren’t the only recycled element in the season première, which runs through a familiar playbook without much energy or personality. Fans jonesing for the start of football season will get their fix here, but it’s a diluted one lacking the kick of previous editions.
The season première hits all the expected beats: the arrival of the players at training camp; the conditioning drills; the bed check; the rah-rah motivational speeches from the coaches; the rookies jockeying for position; the veterans trying to hold on to their jobs; the potentially season-ending injuries; the moments of comic relief. What’s missing is any compelling reason we should be watching this team in particular. So far, at least, it’s a rather generic bunch of guys, practiced in the clichés of the trade (“Let’s do all the little things right!”), but a little on the dull side.
Take Andy Dalton, who has been a pretty good quarterback with an unfortunate penchant for throwing interceptions in big moments. As the episode opens, Dalton is doing exercises under the direction of his wife Jordan, who he has encouraged to become a Pilates instructor. He seems like a nice enough guy, but at no point does any trace of personality emerge. Similarly, the long-tenured Marvin Lewis is clearly an effective leader, but he’s not the most dynamic or charismatic figure in the game. That’s not to say every season of Hard Knocks should revolve around a bellowing clown like Rex Ryan, but unfortunately, simple, understated competence doesn’t necessarily translate to riveting television.
James Harrison might be the larger-than-life character the show needs, but at least in this first episode, he’s a non-participant. Formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he won two Super Bowls, Harrison signed with the Bengals earlier this year. Narrator Live Schreiber (yes, he’s back, despite the fact that he works for Showtime now on Ray Donovan) tells us he’s one of the most fearsome players in the league, but we mostly just see petulance, as Harrison flips off the cameras, turns his back on them, covers them with his hand, or slams the door in front of them.
But if the team is something of a bust from an entertainment standpoint, at least the show still delivers in terms of its technical aspects. As usual, the NFL Films cameras are right in the middle of the action, capturing bone-crunching plays in high-definition super-slowmo and delivering cinematic flourishes worthy of prestige cable dramas. And there’s still hope for some personalities to emerge: Running backs coach Hue Jackson is an energetic presence with a flair for trash talk, most of it directed at the defense, and Giovani Bernard is a good-natured running back who takes a lot of grief for driving his girlfriend’s mother’s minivan.
Rabid football fanatics would probably argue that even a lame season of their favorite sport is pretty good, and some might say the same about Hard Knocks. But while this edition might still pick up steam, it gets off to a lethargic, uninspired start.
- I wouldn’t mind a few more interludes akin to the “What superpower would you want?” discussion. I especially liked the player trying to pin down exactly how fast and far he would be able to fly.
- The moment at the end when local kid Larry Black breaks down crying after suffering a season-ending injury got to me, but it would have been even more effective if we had been introduced to him earlier, rather than five minutes from the end of the episode.
- “Who Dey?” seems an entirely too apt team catchphrase. After watching this episode, I still don’t know the answer.