The Franchise: A Season With The San Francisco Giants debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The best sports documentaries--like any documentary--suck you in regardless of how familiar you are with the subject matter. Whether or not you were alive when the big game happened or cheered for that particular team or even heard of that particular athlete, the story should grab you because in the end it is a story more than it was sports.
I think the problem with Showtime’s The Franchise is that as the “season with the San Francisco Giants” unfolds nearly in real time, the directors struggle, at least in the beginning, to discover their story. The series is introduced with the concept that the team has a “target on its back” for being the 2010 World Series Champions, but that as a theme doesn’t seem to hold up that well early on in a season. When my team, the Chicago White Sox, won the World Series in 2005, I never thought the next season, “Everyone’s out to get us.” I remembered how long the 2005 season was, how many little things had to go right, and just hoped we’d have a decent April. Baseball is all about the moments and particulars, and ideally the series would be interesting regardless of whether the Giants were defending a title or not.
It’s not that the Giants have to have a banner year in order for the series to work--it’s that, early on at least, the directors seem to have a hard time trusting which stories are interesting enough to linger on, to hold our attention. The first half of the premiere skims over the small moments in favor of broad brushstrokes. We very briefly meet some members of the team and staff and learn things we already know, like “Injuries suck” and “It’s hard being away from your family on roadtrips.” As a baseball fan I’d love to see behind-the-scenes footage of a MLB team, what it’s like on the plane or getting dressed for the game, but what we see at first is slightly gag-inducing good PR. Here are the team members visiting Ground Zero while in New York for a series against the Mets. Here’s Jeremy Affeldt visiting injured fan Bryan Stow. Here’s Matt Cain cuddling his chubby baby. America!!
The Franchise at first seems reluctant to get up close to what its subjects actually do for a living. It’s not until the second half of the episode that we actually start watching footage of specific games and hear some narration from the players on what they were thinking through each play. Even if we’re not given access to all parts of the franchise, any fan of the sport would enjoy hearing the athlete's perspective on how nine innings go by beyond the hat-tipping 110% of cliche-ridden press conferences. Until the second half of the episode, the show moves too quickly to truly absorb the sport itself, with quick cuts of the games, players, fans. The player and manager interviews are not allowed to stand alone, as they’re patched together with a voiceover narration and clips from sports commentators, which give it an unpleasant Any Given Sunday vibe.
While I didn’t watch the series in order to take pleasure in rich men’s pain, the premiere picks up in the second half as we finally see a bit of tension. General Manager Brian Sabean has choice words for Marlins player Scott Cousins after he nails catcher Buster Posey at home plate. Pitcher Barry Zito seems a little touchy about the fact that Ryan Vogelsong is enjoying the best days of his career thanks to his teammate being on the DL. Brian Wilson says “asshole” and “fuck” (the language in the episode seems otherwise suspiciously clean for a documentary about a professional sports team.)
Speaking of Brian Wilson, I felt teased by the fact that he didn’t get more camera time. The bearded closer comes off as the most interesting, funny, odd member of the team by far, yet we only get stolen moments with him. I wonder if the producers are saving him for the next episode, so we can learn more about what makes him tick. The directors can’t help the fact that baseball players are private and are unlikely to reveal their “true” selves to the camera, but Wilson seems incapable of not doing that, so why don’t we see more of him?
I’ve only seen the first installment of The Franchise and don’t know where it will go from here, especially considering that the episode takes us nearly up until the All-Star game itself. Thus far, I don’t see it joining the canon of classic sports programs but maybe future episodes will prove me wrong. The series needs to slow down and trust that the viewers, especially as baseball fans, can handle a deliberately-paced show, that we can handle getting to know fewer players better rather than as much of the team as we can in one go. And it needs to let us get closer to the action as well--what can it tell us about baseball, about the San Francisco Giants that we don’t probably already know? At this point I’m not sure.
--With all apologies to Giants fans, the series makes me sort of wish the team will lose more than it will win, because we all know what happy baseball players look like when they’re the golden Boys of Summer: will we be granted much access to them when they’re frustrated and upset?
--Aubrey Huff dances like Ricky Gervais on The Office.
--It’s a little ironic that Brian Wilson jokes about corny and obvious theme music being used in the series when “I’m Coming Home” plays when the players return from their road trip.