4th and Forever: TV Review
The reality show centers on the Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High football team, which has, after decades of laying waste to rivals, suddenly started losing games.
Something's not right in Long Beach, Calif. It's not just the city's high crime rate or its pervasive level of poverty, though both are notable. Instead, the trouble concerns the football team at Long Beach Poly High, which has, after decades of laying waste to rivals, suddenly started losing games.
Depicting that dilemma, 4th and Forever, Current TV's new docuseries about the struggling team, is a case study in how a reality-television framework can corrupt potentially interesting subject matter. Although its team of producers -- Brian Graden, Alex Rader, Lois Curren (Making Menudo), Clint Stinchcomb, Michael Hughes and Stephen Land (Sons of Guns) -- has hit upon a topic that, like the films Hoop Dreams and Off the Rez before it, has the makings of something more profound than a win-loss record, 4th and Forever is hamstrung by the decision to string out its drama into an all-too-repetitive series, rather than an economical one-off documentary.
"I've led Poly to four regional championships," head coach Raul Lara tells the camera. "Last year we were 6-6 [7-5, including a forfeit win] -- unacceptable season. This year we're gonna try and get back on top. If not, I'm outta here."
During the premiere, Lara reiterates that "make or break"/"now or never"/"win or go home"/"this is it" point as if reading from a sports-cliche handbook.
Far more interesting than whether the team will regain its form on the field, however, are the subplots of its players.
Jeremiah Hollowell, a senior running back, epitomizes the many aspiring athletes on the team who grew up in the roughest environs of Long Beach.
"My older two brothers also went to Long Beach Poly and got college scholarships," Hollowell says. "I've been in gangs, and my mother's afraid I won't make it out of Long Beach, so she rides me hard."
That description turns out to be a bit of an understatement. Hollowell injures his shoulder during the year's first practice, potentially endangering his college hopes. Having raised four children on her own for 15 years while Jeremiah's father has been in federal prison, Hollowell's mother unloads on her son.
"I'm sorry if I'm getting emotional, Jeremiah, because I want you to be the best," she says with frightening intensity and tears rolling down her cheeks. "Not good, cause good ain't good enough for mine -- the best."
She then pulls out a tattered family Bible and makes Jeremiah swear an oath that he'll "man up" and apply himself anew to football, whatever his sore shoulder is telling him.
At such moments, this reality show feels, well, real. But as the stories of other players are told, you can't help but become aware of the multiple camera angles that capture seemingly intimate moments, and the way the crew seems set up in just the right spot for family members to enter and deliver their well-worn lines about hard work and success. Worse still are the poorly edited game sequences, over which an unforgivably phony announcer's play-by-play has been added.
"Poly having a real hard time stopping the running game and -- whoa! Whoa! Here's another questionable hit," the fictitious announcer proclaims during an on-field scuffle at a preseason scrimmage.
Such staging might not be so conspicuous, but because this is a reality series, apparently, we often have to see the same scenes before and after commercial breaks, as if our memory spans were too short to withstand the interruption of car and pizza ads.
To be fair, there is suspense in learning whether Jeremiah and other Poly players make good, on and off the field. But that's also what makes watching 4th and Forever so frustrating: You end up wanting more than it delivers.
Without depth to its storytelling, all that's left is the question of whether Poly's football team will return to form in 2010. But after sitting through the repetitive premiere, some viewers will be tempted to visit Google for a quicker answer.