We’ve seen some great ones through the years.
After Ken Reeves of the Bulls saw his career cut short by a knee injury, he became an old-school coach at an inner-city high school who had a profound impact on the lives of his players.
Kenny Powers had an up-and-down career, but when he was healthy and his fastball was humming, he hit 101 mph on the radar gun. What an arm! Not to mention that he was one of the most colorful and controversial characters baseball has ever seen.
Then there’s Eric Taylor, a high school football coach who had the highest winning percentage in Texas history with the Dillon Panthers — and, perhaps more impressively, resurrected the program at the newly reopened East Dillon High. Taylor went on to repeat his success with the Pemberton Pioneers in Philadelphia.
Let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes legends, such as Arliss Michaels, a pioneering sports agent in the 1990s; Dana Whitaker, the executive producer of the groundbreaking ‘‘Sports Night’’ show; and crusty visionary Sam Sylvia, who created the syndicated Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling in the 1980s.
Hall of Famers, one and all.
Granted, they’re not real people, but that doesn’t make them any less beloved. Reeves, Powers, Taylor and the rest are fictional characters on some of the best TV shows about sports ever made.
As I started compiling the list of my favor ite TV sports shows of all time, I was surprised at just how many such programs we’ve had through the years — and how quickly some were forgotten (at least by yours truly).
Raise your hand if you remember ‘‘Listen Up,’’ a CBS sitcom from 2004-05 with Jason Alexander playing a sports-media personality loosely based on Tony Kornheiser of ‘‘Pardon the Interruption’’ fame. Or how about ‘‘Hardball,’’ the 1994 baseball series about the fictional Pioneers of the American League?
And, geez, I have to admit I had forgotten about ‘‘My Boys,’’ the TBS series (2006-10), even though Jordana Spiro’s PJ Franklin was a sportswriter who covered the Cubs for this very newspaper. And the one and only Jim Gaffigan played Andy, PJ’s brother. Come on, Rich!
Before we dive into the rankings, a few notes:
I’ve excluded shows in which a central character was involved with sports, but it wasn’t a recurring component of the series. Ray Barone of ‘‘Everybody Loves Raymond’’ and Oscar Madison of ‘‘The Odd Couple’’ were sportswriters, but those were hardly workplace comedies. Cameron Tucker becomes the coach of a high school football team on ‘‘Modern Family,’’ but Cam’s coaching duties were front and center only a few times. (I love ‘‘Modern Family,” but the football scenes cracked me up. To be sure, it’s a sitcom and not ‘‘Friday Night Lights,’’ but it always looked like there were about 14 players on the team, no assistant coaches and about 60 people in the stands.)
My top 10:
10. “Coach” (CBS, 1989-1997)
An old-fashioned, entertaining, traditional network sitcom with Craig T. Nelson as Hayden Fox, the coach of the Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles and, in the last two seasons, the Orlando Breakers, a fictional NFL expansion team. ‘‘Coach’’ also featured tons of real-life sports figures, with Troy Aikman, Mike Ditka, Al Michaels and Dick Butkus appearing as themselves.
9. “1st & Ten” (HBO, 1984-1991)
This was one of the first HBO series to distinguish itself from traditional network fare. The show served up generous helpings of nudity and profanity in telling the story of the players, coaches and executives with the California Bulls, a fictional pro franchise. Delta Burke was a hoot as Diane Barrow, who becomes the owner of her ex-husband’s team. Real-life players such as Marcus Allen, Vince Ferragamo, John Matuszak and (alas) O.J. Simpson added authenticity playing fictional footballers.
8. “All American” (CW, 2018-)
In this well-acted and emotionally involving CW high school soap opera, Daniel Ezra is outstanding as Spencer James, a talented football prospect (based on real-life footballer Spencer Paysinger) who transfers from Crenshaw High School to another world: Beverly Hills High.
7. “Eastbound & Down” (HBO, 2009-2013)
Sometimes it feels as though Danny McBride is playing variations on the same foul-mouthed, buffoonish, braggadocio-infused character, but nobody’s better at playing these arrogant and boorish but somehow likable clowns. McBride killed as former baseball phenom Kenny Powers, who continues to comport himself like a famous superstar even as he’s knocking about his hometown school in North Carolina as a substitute gym teacher.
6. “Brockmire” (IFC and Hulu, 2017-)
Hank Azaria, master of more than a dozen character voices on ‘‘The Simpsons,’’ sounds EXACTLY like a certain kind of professional but borderline-cheesy baseball announcer in the darkly funny, richly layered and sometimes bat-bleep-crazy ‘‘Brockmire.’’ Azaria does arguably the best work of his career as the self-destructive Jim Brockmire, who refers to a heavy-set minor-leaguer as a ‘‘former long-haul driver and gout survivor’’ and calls a home run by exclaiming, ‘‘And like Ben Affleck’s depressing directorial debut, that one is going to be ‘Gone Baby Gone’!’’
5. “GLOW” (Netflix, 2017-)
The wonderful Alison Brie does Emmy-level work in a brilliant comedic/dramatic performance as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress in 1985 who becomes a most unlikely professional wrestler for a nascent ladies pro wrestling circuit. ‘‘GLOW’’ has a pitch-perfect feel for the world of minor-league television in the mid-1980s, and the wrestling sequences are impressively staged. Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel and Jackie Tohn are standouts as Ruth’s fellow wrestlers, and Marc Maron looks like he was born to play cynical GLOW creator Sam Sylvia.
4. “Playmakers” (ESPN, 2003)
The first original drama series created by ESPN was a gritty, unflinching look at a fictional pro football team. In fact, it was SO brutally honest in tackling issues such as drug abuse, promiscuity and the physical and psychological tolls the game exacts on players that ESPN reportedly canceled the show in no small part because of pressure from the NFL.
3. “Sports Night” (ABC, 1998-2000)
The great Aaron Sorkin (‘‘The West Wing,’’ ‘‘The Social Network’’) created this criminally short-lived series about the goings-on at a fictional sports-news show clearly inspired by ESPN’s ‘‘SportsCenter’’ in its Keith Olbermann/Dan Patrick heyday. ‘‘Sports Night’’ had the authentic look and feel of a real-life ESPN show.
2. “The White Shadow” (CBS, 1978-1981)
On this groundbreaking, bold and sometimes controversial series, a white former NBA player (Ken Howard, who had the height, the heft and, most important, the dramatic chops to pull off the role) takes a coaching job at an impoverished, largely African American and Hispanic high school. In the course of three seasons, ‘‘The White Shadow’’ addressed subjects such as child abuse, sexual orientation and drug use at a time when network television typically shied away from exploring such issues. ‘‘The White Shadow’’ was brilliant, impactful and real.
1. “Friday Night Lights” (NBC, DIRECTV, 2006-2011)
There was never any doubt about No. 1. Developed by Peter Berg, who directed the 2004 film of the same name (which was inspired by the seminal 1990 nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger), ‘‘Friday Night Lights’’ is about as close to perfection as a TV sports show can get, from that iconic opening theme by W.G. Snuffy Walden to Berg’s signature cinema verité visual style to the outstanding writing to one of the best casts of all time, led by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tami Taylor and featuring Taylor Kitsch, Minka Kelly, Michael B. Jordan and Jesse Plemons.
‘‘Friday Night Lights’’ captured the madness, the intensity, the passion and the cultural impact of high school football on small-town Texas. It also captured the joy, the heartbreak, the setbacks, the triumphs and the beauty of life itself.