- The best in sports TV from 2018? The special edition of the SI Media Podcast tells you everything you need to watch this holiday season.
This week's special edition of the SI Media Podcast features a rundown of the best in sports pop culture from 2018.
Looking for recommendations for what to watch or listen to this holiday season? Producer Harry Swartout and a panel from around the SI newsroom hand out their picks for the best movies, TV shows and more.
Below, an edited transcript from the section on the Best Sports TV shows of the year.
To find the other sections on the podcast, tune to these timestamps:
— Podcasts and more: 28:00-58:00
— Movies: 58:00-1:26:00
— Books: 1:26:00-1:47:00
Robin Lundberg (host of SI Now): I have The Shop presented by LeBron James and crew on HBO.
Harry Swartout (SI video producer, host of special edition of SI Media Podcast): Convince us why. Why do you like The Shop?
RL: Well, you know, first of all, I like it and it's not really from a LeBron standpoint. Of course that's the entryway. I wouldn't have watched it otherwise, but there were some interesting things that … I didn't know I would be into. Like one was an anecdote into personalities and even things on the court.
Victor Oladipo was on one episode and he was talking about his time in Oklahoma City and basically how much the noise can get to a player. Like he said, there was a moment where he would look to the sideline and actually see and wonder if people were talking about him. So he thought maybe they're saying, Oh, he can't shoot. He can't play off of Russell Westbrook. So it was a little bit of a window into how much these guys actually think about that stuff, which you don't give credence to or attention to and you know, Markelle Fultz for instance, what he's going through right now. I wonder how much everybody talking about him is weighing on him. So I thought that was really insightful from Oladipo, who went on to kill it in his next stop.
Then there was the LeBron talk with Maverick Carter and everybody else about their upbringing, and you got a little bit of a window into what makes those guys tick beyond, you know, being a basketball player, beyond the business ventures.
And then finally I thought it was cool that Drake was on there to give his interview post-Pusha T, which he hadn't talked about before. And generally that would be for a different venue or platform. So the fact that it was that platform is just another way that these guys … realize they can circumvent the traditional media and get their message out in a different way.
So there were just a few different layers to it that it was better than I thought it was going to be going in. I was like, All right, I'll check it. In fact I didn't watch it right away. I saw other people talk about it and that's what made me watch it.
HS: It seems like it's a new kind of access to these players and people. But it all kind of hinges on, Do you like LeBron? What if you're a LeBron hater? Can you still enjoy the show?
RL: Well, I mean if you're that much of a LeBron hater, probably not right?
The first episode was just like interesting from a sociological level. How does a kid who grew up really without parents and a lot of ways without a dad, and in and out of different houses, in an environment where there wasn't that much support and then all the sudden he has the entire world—how does that shape your worldview? That's just intriguing to me in general.
And then some of the other people that are on there—like Jon Stewart was on the first episode. That gives you a nice Venn Diagram of interests. And like I said, you know, Drake on another one, Snoop, and a whole bunch of, you know, people from different realms. And Elena Delle Donne had some good stuff to say as well.
Priya Desai (SI video producer): I was co-hosting SI Now with you the week it premiered, and I was like this is great—the things that they're talking about, but then I wondered Is this sustainable? Right? It feels a little bit like a roundtable and I hate roundtables …
HS: … while we're doing a roundtable.
PD: So I'm assuming that it's morphing into different things now. So I'm wondering like what is this next? Like where does this go?
RL: That's a good question. I think that's the reason they haven't had a bunch of them. There's only been a couple. So in order for it to have maximum effect, I think they need the cast to be strong and the topic matter to be strong, and that would get watered-down if it was episodic on a weekly basis.
Jessica Smetana (video producer, co-host of Most Valuable Podcast): I'm not a LeBron hater, but I'm also not really a basketball fan at all. So is there anything in this show for someone who doesn't really care too much about the basketball storylines? I'm a little intrigued by the Drake stuff, but it's not really something that would make me tune in.
RL: Sure. Like I said, there's the insight into the athlete and the athlete experience. There was the explanation of what it's like to try and mold this empire that they have and deal with the scrutiny that they have. So I think that's just interesting on a human level. And then it's not just, you know, basketball, too, or it's not just basketball in the sense that it's, What do you do when the shot clock is winding down? It's Elena Delle Donne talking about how women players are viewed and perceived and having to break through some of those notions. So a lot of that stuff I think is just relatable either if you're a sports fan or just from a human-interest standpoint.
PD: I wonder if other athletes are gonna jump on this. … LeBron has really paved the way to be like, I'm going to paint my own story and I'm going to create my own narrative. And this is not good for us [at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED], but not really depend on the media to be the conduit
RL: But I think it's hard. I mean it's easy in the sense that guys can get their own message out there. … But I think the one difficulty is LeBron is so universally recognizable regardless of whether you're a basketball fan or not, that I wonder how many people come to even check you out if you don't have somebody like that as the entry point.
PD: I think it depends on who he has on the show. He's done a really good job bringing a very well-rounded group of people like Jon Stewart. That was a surprise, a good surprise. But that was a surprise
HS: All right. So that's Robin Lundberg on The Shop. Next we got Priya. What do you have for us?
PD: We’re doing the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, also known as GLOW.
Two seasons. Has one of my favorite actresses in Alison Brie–I love her. I feel like we could be friends. So Alison, if you're ever in New York …
HS: She was great in Mad Men. She was great in Community.
PD: GLOW is based on a real life group of women who created the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. It basically follows the paths of these women who end up doing something that's pretty unique.
HS: Yes. So the question I have is: you mentioned that there's like a real life GLOW. How much of the show adheres to the actual history versus how much of it is manufactured for drama and entertainment?
PD: So going in from the interviews I've read, all the actresses initially were like, We're gonna lightly base it off these characters, but I really want to kind of make this my own. But then a majority of them took a lot of their characteristics and storylines with them. There are some bigger plots that are obviously made to keep the storyline going, but as far as the characters, both the wrestling characters and their real-life characters—those are pretty, I wouldn't say spot on, but they're respectful.
RL: What is the target audience? Is it wrestling fans? Is it people who just like that sort of television series? What is it?
PD: One of our colleagues, Dave Seperson, and I were talking. He's a huge wrestling fan. Huge. His wife is not a huge sports fan. He's like, My wife loved it. So it's one of those things where both sports and non-sports and wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans can really get into it because it's also just produced very well and the acting is really good and there's a lot of characters that you really root for.
JS: For a show that's based on reality and real people: Where do you think the show will go next? Because you said there's been two seasons and now there's going to be a third season. Do you think they're going to have to start kind of wavering from the real people?
PD: I think that they are able to use the storylines and then capture what's happening historically in the moment and create storylines from that. So if they wanted to take this out for a while, I think they definitely do because the ladies did continue wrestling. They just did it off of television in different formats.
Overall, the show is very thoughtful and the acting is really good. So I think that if you're a fan of good television and you want to see something that is historical in nature, as in the fact that it actually happened, then would check it out.
HS: Excellent. So that's Priya Desai for GLOW. It's on Netflix. Jess, what you got?
JS: So this year I really enjoyed the Hard Knocks season with the Cleveland Browns.
I think that Hard Knocks has been struggling the last few years to really find itself. A lot of the tropes of the past 10 or 15 years have just been replayed over and over. You get the sprinkler montage, you get the car's rolling up to practice camp. But this year I think there were really solid characters and I think it kind of gave me hope for the future of Hard Knocks. I think the producers got either lucky or if you want to say “smart” about choosing the Browns because they had a first-round, first-overall-pick rookie quarterback coming in (Baker Mayfield), and he's someone who's shown a lot of personality throughout his college career. And he's someone that I think audiences really wanted to get to know. And then of course it's the Browns, so their entire front office and coaching staff is kind of a dumpster fire. And being able to see that behind the scenes, I think was really fascinating as a sports fan.
HS: So did it play kind of like a bad soap opera? Like were you tuning in to watch them fail?
JS: Not really. I'm not a Browns fan. I'm actually a Steelers fan, so they’re division rivals. But I was tuning in more to see the characters in the show. You've heard stories about how Hue Jackson is incompetent and everyone knows Greg Williams from Bountygate and having this take you behind the scenes and see their personalities and what they're like as coaches—I think that was actually very informative as a sports fan. You can actually see firsthand how Hugh Jackson is running his practice and judge for yourself if he actually knows what he's doing or not. And that's pretty cool to see behind the scenes.
RL: As long as that show's been on the air, I would agree—it's sort of been like team- and character-dependent because it's less of a, Wow, look we're getting this access. So did they do anything from a production standpoint that made it stand out aside from just having Baker Mayfield?
JS: No, I honestly think that they kind of play the hits when it comes to producing it. They know like the Hard Knocks bread and butter is like finding those two training camp players who might be a little weird or interesting that you want to root for, and then finding the two guys that are going to get cut at the end of the season. And I think this year they just picked the right people and made the right choices with those storylines and it made the show overall a better product.
HS: And of course there was tons of slow-mo.
PD: I didn't watch it this year. I actually didn't watch last year either.
JS: Last year was bad.
PD: That's what I heard. The last few weeks I've become a huge Baker Mayfield fan. I like—I love his just brazen swag. Like he just doesn't care in the sense that like he's gonna say what he wants to say. I don't know if you guys saw Deion Sanders kind of come down on him, and Baker’s like, I'm going to do what I'm going to do. So I respect that and I like his beard game. Very impressive. So should I go back and watch, like, does he really come out or are we seeing his personality really come out now?
JS: I think now that the NFL season is almost over, it’s almost more interesting to watch the series, and seeing that he wasn't even the No. 1 quarterback in the room at the start of the season. But yeah, I think his personality was really starting. I think for a lot of NFL fans that don't watch college football or weren't paying attention to his college story at Oklahoma, that was kind of their first exposure to him and their first exposure to the other rookies on the team, and I think it's almost more interesting now to go back and see how different things were like 10 weeks ago.
HS: So that is a Hard Knocks. The seminal show at HBO. Jess recommends that. So that gives us two HBO shows. I'm going to add a second Netflix show to the mix. We already had GLOW. I'm giving you Marching Orders.
And it is about a marching band, which is a sport—it is certainly a sport. And we'll talk about why. So Marching Orders, they’re about 12 minutes, they're really short episodes on Netflix. And they follow the HBCU, Bethune-Cookman, and they have a famous marching band and they're world-renowned for their marching band. They’re best known for having like kind of bombastic performances with a lot of dance and a lot of rhythm and a lot of cool things going on. And this starts before the season even starts in Daytona Beach, which is where they are in the summer for band camp. So this is a “one time at band camp” story kind of thing.
It plays kind of like a reality show, like, you know, any kind of a show where you put a bunch of people in a room and see what happens. But the pressure isn't applied by the usual reality show tricks; instead it's applied by having to be in a marching band. And so you have the “14-Karat Dancers” and who's going to make the team and there's a big section about, Are you going to make the cut? And they're very vicious with their cuts. If you made it last year, that doesn't mean you make it again this year. So they cut a lot of seniors and juniors and that's a big thing.
But it also has some really interesting social dynamic commentary, where they have, for instance, the color guard— these girls try out, they get in, but they don't have enough size XL uniforms for all of the girls and it would take months to get them ordered because apparently marching band uniforms take forever to make. And so the band director—who's a kind of a tough love guy, his name is Donovan Wells—he says, Look, y'all made it, but we don't have any uniforms for you. We can't use you. And so he, like extra-cuts another few people who were good enough to get in. And this kind of a size narrative runs throughout because they follow one of the dancers who basically is on probation.
PD: For her weight?
HS: Uh, yes, it's tough.
So that kind of gives you a feel for what's going on. But there's also a mellophone player who's reconnecting with his mom through the band, and he's been estranged from her …
JS: This shows sounds very dramatic.
PD: Here's my problem with it. It's only 12 minutes and it's a little frustrating. They must have had a bunch of footage on the cutting room floor, and I'm assuming it got made and maybe Netflix suggested cutting it down? I don't know who decided to cut it to 12 minutes, but I thought that was really problematic because I would watch one episode and just feel like right when I got into the story, the credits would roll.
HS: And I think the thing they were probably trying to do is get people who had never tried to watch to, to be like, Oh I’ll watch 12 minutes.
RL: Some of these shows that people say are the best shows ever, like The Wire and shows like that … it always feels like such an endeavor to me. I'm like, I don't know if I can do that.
HS: I don't have seven seasons in me.
RL: Twelve minutes. Alright man. I could check it out. It's like the trend with some of the albums, like Daytona, the way that they're shorter, it makes them easier to digest. So I could see that being the incentive
HS: But I do think that does hurt them later on. Once you've hooked them, it’s like you turn it on and it's different.
JS: If the story's good enough, people will watch episode.
HS: And I'm hoping maybe the second season they'll decide to do it a little bit differently, and there definitely could and should be a second season because the show stops right after their first competition. So there's a lot more stuff they can be following and doing and watching them do. So that is actually one of the few flaws I found with the show. I want more marching band. I want more cool band.
PD: Are they doing a second season?
HS: I haven't seen it confirmed anywhere, but I don't know why they wouldn't. Netflix is really weird about announcing seasons two of things.
PD: I wouldn't mind more of like a historical aspect.
JS: Explaining why it's different. Why wide such a big deal or why they picked that school or anything like that.
RL: Why are band directors and conductors such hard-asses?
HS: I guess it would be because they have like a 100-something college kids and they have to make them do one thing and I imagine the only way you do that is if you absolutely go iron fist on them, because I can't get college kids to do anything.
JS: Did you see the new season of Last Chance U also on Netflix? This season for me, just like I would much rather watch the marching band show than Last Chance U because the coach was such an a------. After three episodes I was like, Man, I can't listen to this guy drop 30 more F-bombs. He was a really mean coach.
HS: So that was a Marching Orders. It's on Netflix now.