Shaq Vs. - "Shaq vs. Ben"

ABC’s new sports reality show, Shaq Vs., is an hourlong show that really cries out to be a half hour long. For the first 35 minutes or so, the series is a fun little goof on your typical reality competition series with Shaquille O’Neal as a compelling host and his journey across the country to challenge pros in sports other than basketball to a series of competitions. For the premiere, Shaq takes on Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and reigning Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger in a quick football scrimmage, where Shaq gets a series of handicaps and has to prove that he can beat “Big Ben” (as he is called) at the game. It’s a fun setup for a series, to be honest.

That said, the fact that the entire episode wasn’t posted on the ABC site as a screener and was, instead, posted as a five minute preview didn’t bode well for the series. And for the first half hour, I couldn’t quite figure out why ABC seemed so shy about the show. It wasn’t the next Mad Men, no, but it was surprisingly fun, as Shaq went over to talk trash to Ben, challenge him to an impromptu game of HORSE and steal his quarterback coach for some ad hoc training, designed to get him in shape for the scrimmage so that he might have a fighting chance.

But then it kept going on. And on. And on. And while Shaq is a fun guy to follow around and Ben is willing to play along by returning trash talk as good as he gets, the series didn’t quite have enough material to fill out a full hour. At a half hour, the episode might have been too cramped, to be honest, but at an hour, there was just too much padding. If there were some sort of 45 minute time slot in network primetime, it would be just about ideal for a show like this, but, obviously, there is not, so ABC felt better about going with too much rather than too little, and that leaves the end of the episode, when the whole enterprise should be lifting off, kind of dragging.

In general, every time the episode spends time with Shaq and Ben, it’s in good shape. But to pad out the running time, the series has added the trappings of an actual sporting event, from a perky blonde sideline reporter to two announcers who sit in their newsroom and pontificate on the action as though this were some sort of momentous occasion on the same level as the Olympics. Any time the series cuts to any of these figures, the action drags to a halt, and it has to take pains to pick back up again when the series returns to whatever’s happening on the field.

Furthermore, the competition at episode’s end just takes way too long. Shaq is a gifted natural athlete who picks up the steps and ball handling techniques he’s taught quickly enough. Couple all of that with the handicaps that are placed on him, and he’s a pretty solid match for Ben. So that means that neither competitor can break out in a big way during the episode-ending confrontation, and that makes everything just drag on for longer than it really should drag on. After a few rounds of Shaq starting at the 20 yard line and Ben starting at the 40 yard line and both trying to crack the end zone, you realize that these are two gifted guys ramming away at touch football with defenders who are kind of pulling back to keep Shaq in the game, and that starts to sap the fun out of it.

This is not to say that Shaq isn’t genuinely gifted at what he’s trying. In some ways, basketball and football use enough similar skills that the guy can get by with much of his pre-existing skill set to make the whole thing work. As Charlie Batch, the Steelers quarterback coach, points out, Shaq’s got quite an arm, and he’s soon throwing passes that would be respectable on a lot of college football fields, if not quite to the level of what one might need to get by in the NFL. Plus, he’s a pretty good receiver, as evidenced by how he catches the ball one-handed and later comes off the sidelines to make an interception, which leads to the announcers breathlessly intoning, “And he wasn’t even in the game!” as he streaks down the field. He’s surprisingly quick and maneuverable. Basically, Shaq is a good athlete, and everyone who trains with him is surprised by this. Repeat ad nauseum.

Shaq Vs. isn’t a total write-off though. There’s still quite a bit to like about the show, particularly in that first half hour, which is much more interested in watching Shaq and his opponent of the week get ready for the competition. As mentioned, Shaq is an appealing presence, but I’m not sure that even gets to the half of it. The guy’s just a big, grinning kid who loves sports and being at play. His enthusiasm for the show and the other athletes he comes in contact with is pretty infectious, and his trash talk is generally agreeable. He’s one of the few athletes at his level of popularity that a show like this could be built around. Tiger Woods would probably be a little too humorless. I don’t know that Michael Phelps possesses the raw charisma (though I do hope the show rustled him up to have a race with Shaq). And Tom Brady is probably too busy trying to redeem himself still. (I suppose the show could have gone with Brett Favre – Shaq even makes a joke about him – but he probably would have backed out of the series at the last minute, then re-agreed to it at an even later minute. That was a terrible joke. I’m sorry.)

So, I don’t know, Shaq Vs. is a pretty agreeable way to waste your time. It’s the late summer. Outside of Mad Men, there’s pretty much nothing else going on, so why not watch a hulking behemoth of a man take on the world’s best in sports other than the one he became famous for? You probably won’t learn anything about the human condition and around the 40 minute mark or so, you’ll probably start to wish you had some chores to do or a Tolstoy novel to read since you’ll realize just how acutely you’re wasting your life, but Shaq Vs. has far more going for it than a simple description of the premise would seem to suggest.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Episode I’m most looking forward to: Shaq boxes against Oscar de la Hoya. Episode I’m least looking forward to: Shaq plays beach volleyball against Kerri Walsh and Misty May Treanor.
  • I realize that ABC no longer has the extensive sports department it once did, but couldn’t someone on this show call down there to figure out how to shoot a football game? The limited number of camera angles available to watch most plays from gives the viewer a poor sense of what’s going on at any given moment, which detracts from the fun.
  • Looking at the lineup for this show’s first season, it’s hard to see where, exactly, it would go in year two if it’s a hit. Shaq’s taking care of most of the big sports in this first year. On the other hand, seeing Shaq go toe-to-toe with America’s finest horseshoe tosser in a second season could be even better.

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