Picks and Pans Review: Playmakers

updated 09/01/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ESPN (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET)

Does ESPN love pro football? It depends on the night of the week. Again this fall the sports network will air NFL games on Sundays, and the announcers will enthuse about the toughness, the intensity, the will to win. But starting Tuesday, Aug. 26, ESPN presents a drama series—the network's first—that starkly depicts pro football as brutal, dishonest and drug-infested. Oliver Stone's film Any Given Sunday took a similarly jaundiced view of the football business, then expected the audience to be swept away by the excitement of on-the-field action. The first two episodes of Playmakers, on the other hand, build sympathy for a few of the athletes but give viewers no reason to root for the fictional Cougars as a team. To me that's commendably unconventional; to Sunday-night fans it may be a turnoff.

The show benefits from a strong cast, led by Russell Hornsby (Haunted) as Leon, a veteran running back straining to come back from a knee injury; Omar Gooding (Baby Boy) as Demetrius, the cocky outlaw who took Leon's starting job but can't beat the urge to get high; and Jason Matthew Smith as Eric, a linebacker haunted by a hit that left an opponent paralyzed (we see it over and over in flashback). The Cougars are so laden with woe that the drama often seems like soap opera in shoulder pads, and the principals have too many confessional voice-overs in which they speak of themselves in the second person. But Playmakers has enough grit and talent to hold interest in its rookie season. BOTTOM LINE: Moves the ball despite mistakes.

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