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Playmakers grows on a viewer in the most important way a good television series should: by encouraging curiosity about the growth and fate of key characters. One might easily dismiss this ESPN original drama as a mere catalog of the problems that dog some professional football players, very often to public scrutiny: injuries, drugs, egos, criminal associations, etc. But patience rewards those who watch enough of Playmakers's 11 episodes to care about the humanity of the show's troubled athletes. The series concerns NFL contenders the Cougars, led by a hard but fair coach (Anthony John Denison) suffering from prostate cancer while dealing with a treacherous team owner (Bruce Gray), a problematic prima donna (Omar Gooding), and mid-ranked players struggling with fundamentals of the game.
Meanwhile, several Cougars emerge as major characters, among them middle linebacker Eric Olczyk (Jason Matthew Smith), a good guy psychologically impaired after paralyzing an opposing player and now trying to get both his game and life back. Olczyk's best friend, running back Leon Taylor (Russell Hornsby), is at the end of his contract and faces stiff competition for his job, causing stress that translates into a reputation-destroying act of domestic violence. Star quarterback Derek McConnell, a hound among hounds, impregnates a stranger and compels a team assistant (Stephen Bogaert) to handle abortion details. Time after time, the men of Playmakers find themselves pressured to live and function with an eye toward the team's good image and commercial prospects. Yet clean living is terribly difficult given the physical sacrifices, emotional isolation, management sabotage, and temptations foisted upon pro players. The many dramatic strings drawn out over the series come together in the very fine final episode, ending on a note of irony as outrageous as anything previously seen on television. --Tom Keogh