This may prove to be more in the nature of an epitaph than an encomium. The White Shadow, CBS television's hour-long weekly series about a basketball team in a seedy ghetto high school, has recently fallen on hard times in the ratings. Given the programming tumult created by network executives these days, the chances of Shadow surviving for another season appear pretty slim, although CBS insists the ax has not yet fallen and that there is real hope the show will be renewed.
It certainly should be. Shadow is the most authentic portrayal of sports through fiction that has come along on TV in memory. The rarity of such shows defies logic. Network TV covers real sports events consistently better, technically and esthetically, than it does anything else, with the occasional exception of major news events. Yet whenever a fictional sports program appears, you can be sure you'll see only the most foolish depiction, the kind of thing in which anyone who picks up a ball looks as if he were taught to throw by Noel Coward.
Shadow avoids this silliness. The star of the show, Ken Howard, 35, is a Yale School of Drama graduate and first-class stage actor (Equus, Three Sisters, 1776). He also stands 6'6" and happens to have been a star basketball player in 1962 at Manhasset High School on Long Island, New York. He was, indeed, nicknamed White Shadow because he was the only white player on the team's first five. In the TV series, Howard is an ex-NBA player of extreme mediocrity—he had a 6.6 scoring average over five years—who becomes the basketball coach at an inner-city high school called Carver.
As for authenticity, "Most people in show business say that it isn't necessary to worry about the specifics of basketball, that it's the relationship between characters that counts," Howard says. "Well, that's true in part, but that is also the reason sport shows never work—because the sports are so ludicrous. On Shadow, we are adamant about details—even details that seem absolutely not to matter."
True enough. Bruce Paltrow, executive producer of The White Shadow, attended high school in Great Neck, not far from Manhasset, and clearly remembers Howard's teams. "When we were discussing costumes," Paltrow says, "Ken and I said, 'Of course, our Carver High School uniforms have to be blue and orange.' The studio experts disagreed; too many visual problems with blue and orange. But we insisted. Those were the colors of both Manhasset and Great Neck in those days. That detail added just one more touch of reality that is important to us and the show."
Paltrow and Howard dreamed up the idea a couple of years ago and sold it to CBS last spring after a screening in which the audience of network executives reacted with unusual warmth. "They were all my friends," Paltrow says. CBS wanted to put it on at the start of the season in September—but as a half-hour program. "We said no way," says Howard. "They apparently have an absurd unwritten rule in TV that a program is either a drama or it is a comedy. It cannot be both. They told us only a drama can go for an hour, comedies go for half an hour. But our show wasn't either one, so eventually I guess we just confused them enough so they left it as an hour."
Shadow finally premiered late last November, at 8 o'clock on Monday nights. It was an immediate hit, climbing steadily in the ratings until it drew a splendid 33 share of the audience—an estimated 14.9 million households—in January and was ranked 17th among all programs. Then, showing abysmal judgment, CBS moved the program to Saturday night against such cretinous smash hits as Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Shadow almost disappeared, falling to 53rd in the rankings. CBS recently returned it to the Monday night slot in hopes of reviving its former popularity. The show bounced back to a 20.5 share on March 19.
The concept of Shadow is more thoughtful than most other prime-time fare. "We felt that what was good about basketball was that it gave us some real action without violence," Howard says. "It got away from car crashes and shootings. The basketball games are our car crashes. And the basketball court is a great metaphor in that it is insulated from the outside world and you can deal with values separate from the real world."
On occasion the show has handled tough and complex issues, such as corporal punishment in schools, homosexuality, incipient alcoholism. The treatment has been evenhanded and intelligent, avoiding the kind of overwrought caricature that prime-time TV so often falls into when it attempts to deal with sensitive and controversial issues (which it rarely does).
Amazingly, the network has not meddled with Shadow, leaving Howard, Paltrow & Co. to their own astute inventions. "We have been very protective of our material," says Howard. "We have a tiny staff, just two writers who know what we need. We plan to deal with more social issues in future shows—drugs, probably, and sex. Of course, in the paranoid recesses of Bruce's mind and mine, we can't help but worry that it's a dream that will end."
Perhaps it will. But even if the show isn't renewed next year, The White Shadow has succeeded at many levels—esthetically, dramatically, athletically and ethically. And if the ratings look good, says one CBS spokesman, The White Shadow has at least a ghost of a chance.