Tuesday, February 26, 2008

42. The White Shadow





It's sounds like a corny premise for a show: former NBA player forced to retire because of bad knees comes back to his old high school and finds that everything has changed since he left. The principal of the school happens to be his former roommate at Boston College and talks him into taking the job of basketball coach at the alma mater. One problem, the principal says, the kids are tough and times (and kids) are different.

It's a story that has been told a million times, “Welcome Back Kotter” is one example, but “The White Shadow” was so much more than a Kotter copy. Produced by Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth's father) and MTM productions (the same folks who brought you “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Rhoda”), this wasn't the basketball version of the insanely popular WBK. It was something much different, much more serious. For the first time a prime time, network show was centered around teenagers (black and Hispanic teens to me more precise) that didn't reduce the characters into caricatures. Each character was fleshed out and was given a true personality, one that didn't just see in strict black and whites—they understood that there were gray areas in life too.

Ken Howard plays the Shadow, Coach Ken Reeves, who uses a lot of old-school logic and toughness to whip the Carver High School basketball team into city champions. Set in South Central Los Angeles, it would have been easy for the writers to go the Kotter route and make the kids lovable goofballs who might be tough on the outside, but are really nice and sweet on the inside. Quick aside: for all of the Sweathogs' tough talk, when did the audience ever see these guys get into a fight? Are we to believe that the toughest kids in a Brooklyn school all worshipped at the altar of their teacher—himself a second-rate Groucho Marx? There have been a lot of stupid things foisted on the American public, but “Welcome Back Kotter” has to be one of the dumbest.

Instead of goony antics, over-the-top camera mugging and worn-out catchphrases, “The White Shadow” brought a gritty realness to prime time television and showed the viewers that a. modern teenagers don't live carefree lives and b. kids living in the ghetto are constantly bombarded with negative influences. From gangs to point shavings to drugs to high school prostitutes to even a member of the team getting gunned down in a liquor store before the city championship, if you were a Carver High graduate, you've pretty much seen the entire gambit of human misery. And it would've been easy for the writers to go the complete opposite way of the Kotter kids and make each episode a weekly “After School Special” about the danger du jour. They didn't do that either.

What made “The White Shadow” so perfect was that there was a nice combination between the serious and the funny. The team members constantly busted each others' balls, got together after games to party and had traverse the troubles of the classroom. In other words, it was about as close to real life as you were going to get in the late 1970s. And another important thing: the kids at Carver High actually looked like they could play basketball. Nothing takes a viewer out of a TV show than an actor trying to do something that he simply can't do. One of the worst parts of “Teen Wolf” was watching Michael J. Fox try and dribble a basketball without watching what he was doing. I could buy the lycanthropy, I can buy car surfing, I can even buy the whole town rallying around a werewolf, but I can't buy Fox playing hoop.

For former “high school heroes” or if you played sports at any level, one of the reasons why this show worked is because you might be able to see your team or members of your team in the Carver High bunch. Like I said before, nostalgia sells. But this wasn't to say that the squad was a big happy family, like most teams there were disagreements and some people didn't like other people for a variety of reason. Abner Goldstein, who was the only Jewish guy who played hoop and often felt ostracized from his teammates who were mostly black. The issue was eventually cleared up and most of the guys treated him as a teammate, but it wasn't a one and done event. I believe that his awkwardness around the team lasted most of the first season. There were a lot of racial aspects explored in the show, but mostly the racial stuff was either not talked about or was dealt with separate from the team—in one episode three players were held in suspicion of mugging an old lady, simply because they were black.

The one goofy portion of the show were the shower scenes. I'm not sure why the producers did this, but they decided to focus on the singing ability of the team. Worse than that, the “Shower of Power” (what the group was called) would often sing rock and R&B songs from the 1950s and early 60s. For a program that was built on the cornerstone of being “real” this was a transcendence into absurdity which never worked because of two reasons. One, most high school basketball players aren't singers and if they are, they aren't doing it in the shower. Two, if we buy the premise that these kids love to sing, they aren't going to sing a bunch of tunes that even the nerdiest of them would consider lame.

As the show progressed cast members left and were added, as the mainstays of Thorpe, Coolidge and Salami stayed constant. By far the team's best player, Coolidge was also the player Reeves was most close to and was seen to be the one where basketball was not just a game, but a life's occupation. However, in a brilliant piece of casting, Coolidge ends up on another MTM show—“St. Elsewhere” as an orderly.

Despite some players leaving for graduation, often times they would return to visit their coach and update him on what they were doing: Haywood worked for a law firm, Goldstein joined the Marines and Reese drove a cab while simultaneously pursuing his dream of becoming a singer. These little vignettes allowed the viewer to catch up cast members who left, which is something that most shows don't do. Once you leave the set, the character is usually forgotten for good. This was proof that the writers cared about their characters.

The show did well, but never caught fire like CBS intended it to and was cancelled after three seasons. For awhile it reran on Nick At Nite and ESPN Classic, but has since left the airwaves, which is a shame because while the basketball shorts are really short and no one posts up in Chuck Taylors anymore, well-crafted stories never go out of style.

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