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Hard Knocks: Or, Why I Now Care About Cincinnati For The First Time Since WKRP Was Cancelled

Chad_Ocho_Cinco_Hard_Knocks There's a reason HBO is an essential part of modern life: because they consistently produce some of the most compelling television on television. If you've read this site before - like, uh... ever - you're well aware that Team MamaPop brings some big love to the good people at HBO with great regularity, notwithstanding the current inexplicable infatuation with rovampic melodrama.

Their expertise extends beyond fiction, however — as the just-started new season of Hard Knocks makes abundantly clear. As has been the case in previous seasons, this five-week documentary follows the strange and immensely fascinating world of preseason NFL training camps in a unique marriage of documentary, reality TV and sports drama that transcends the appeal of professional football to create a truly compelling on-screen experience.

Previous seasons have covered teams as diverse as the Baltimore Ravens in their first camp following their (only) Super Bowl victory, which is almost immediately marred by the torn ACL of star running back/offensive engine Jamal Lewis (thereby basically shattering any hope for a repeat championship before the season even starts); the egomaniacal, star-crossed Dallas Cowboys of 2002, struggling to find a new identity as their glory years draw to an inglorious close; and 2007's just plain sad chronicle of the hapless and hopeless Kansas City Chiefs, preparing for another season of ineptitude and failure on the periphery of the National Football League. Each season offered a fascinating array of characters - players, coaches and owners - struggling to find the opportunity, the camaraderie, the competitive edge, the strategic advantage and the ephemeral alchemy of success on the field that will propel them toward the goal of a lifetime: championship. Victory. Validation.

This season - the second episode airs tonight at 10pm - is focusing on the Cincinnati Bengals, as profoundly star-crossed and dysfunctional a group of individuals as you'll ever find, gathering together to see if they can spin straw into gold... or collapse into (yet another) miasma of failure, in-fighting, arrests and bad juju. Why should you care about them - or this show, for that matter - if you couldn't care less about football? I'll give you four reasons:

  • Chad Ocho Cinco, aka the artist formerly known as Chad Johnson. A couple of seasons ago, Chad Johnson was one of the premier players in the league — a speedy, sure-handed wide receiver and unstoppably charming loudmouth who managed to fascinate on a constant and regular basis with both his performance on the field and his irrepressible personality both on and off of it. (The fact that he legally changed his name to Ocho Cinco - to reflect the fact that his jersey features the number 85, translation notwithstanding - gives you an inkling what we're talking about.) That was then; this is now: he's still bold and boisterous, but the numbers and his performance over the past couple of seasons suggests a player on the downside of his career, even if his ego refuses to recognize that fact. He's at once fascinating, funny as hell and just plain horrifying, and it's damned near impossible to take your eyes off him when he's on-screen.
  • Marvin Lewis, the Bengals' head coach and once one of the most promising and respected coaches in the league... now on the verge of being fired following several seasons of well-below par performance (on the field) and epic misbehavior (off of it, as the Bengals have appeared with greater regularly on local police blotters than on ESPN highlights). He's a bright, passionate, talented man fully aware of how profoundly he and his team have failed... and the price he may soon find himself paying as a result. Watching a man trying to motivate 50+ professional football players and a full coterie of coaches and team management staff while simultaneously trying to retain both his dignity and his job makes for an intricate balancing act.
  • Carson Palmer, the Bengals' golden boy quarterback, former Heisman Trophy winner and All-Pro leader, trying to return - for the second time - from a potentially catastrophic injury. He stayed mostly in the background for the first episode, but there's little doubt that the fortunes of EVERYONE ride on his shoulders. His burden, how he carries it and how his presence affects everyone around him makes him the wheel around which all else turns.
  • Players on the periphery... as is the case during every season of Hard Knocks, some of the most moving and memorable footage comes from players on the edge: undrafted free agents, rookies, and victims of the numbers game who are never less than completely aware that any mistake they make can define the difference between an empty locker and a bus ticket... and the impossible dream of life as an NFL player. No matter how many times you see it, it's never less than painful to see a 300lb man break apart when he's told that he's been cut. This isn't reality TV drama; this is real life.

In short, this is a show about football. But more than that, it's a show about people: a truly diverse collection of individuals brought together in a strange and impossibly stressful situation, struggling together and against one another and through trial and error and grave danger of terrible injury to try to achieve something that you can't help but think - especially after watching this show - can't possibly be worth the price.

And yet, they do. Every day, each week, they go to work and produce a monumental effort of blood, sweat and tears - both literal and figurative - for our entertainment. For most, this is visible only in the neatly packaged NFL product broadcast on major networks in a panoply of fireworks and relentless hype. But for these five weeks on HBO, we are offered a fascinating glimpse into what lies behind the curtain.

And we are entertained.

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mouthy_broad (michele)

we caught this the other night. (couldn't watch it all at the time) they are my hometown team. i have always like Marvin Lewis and i am glad they have kept him (in the past they tend to blame the coach when the town feels it is the owner's fault).

here's hoping for them to have a season that isn't regrettable. please.

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah

I set up my season pass for this yesterday. I love the Hard Knocks series.

And I'm glad it isn't Dallas again. Jerry Jones frightens me.


That may be too much to ask for, but (at least) this helps to put them back onto the national radar above/beyond fantasy football ramifications.


I know what you mean. He was kind of fascinating to watch last year, but at the same time... a little Jerry Jones goes a loooooong way.


You've made me think this show is as good as the best season of Most Dangerous Catch... It best not let down!


For what it's worth, the likelihood of the show disappointing is substantially less than that of the Bengals disappointing this season.

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