Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Pick 10 Great Sports-Themed Series

6:30 AM 7/25/2020

by Daniel Fienberg and Inkoo Kang

Viewers in Olympics withdrawal should check out these top-notch shows depicting athletes, competition or pure physical prowess, from addictive documentaries to a '90s superheroine classic, a comedy about fantasy football and more.

Liberty City, The League and Losers- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Networks

Sports fans, rejoice! Our days of resorting to televised cornhole as a competitive placebo are theoretically over!

Major League Baseball returned Thursday, even if a scheduled 60-game season played in empty stadiums — with bizarre rule variations and several high-profile player absences — doesn't exactly feel like baseball. And baseball being back doesn't change the strangeness of a landscape in which this Friday should have marked the start of the Tokyo Olympics, turning our global attention to running, swimming, throwing heavy metal objects and the symphony of bending known as "rhythmic gymnastics."

So for our latest “Quarantine TV” list, we decided to recommend shows about, or peripherally about, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the glory of athletics of all stripes, both obvious and perhaps less-than-obvious.

Disclaimer: Friday Night Lights and Pitch have both been in recent lists we’ve curated, so we're assuming you already know about them. And while one could easily argue that America to Me is a sports story — Kendale's wrestling arc is one of the show's best — we've surely told you enough times to watch that one as well. And our apologies to Sen. Elizabeth Warren in advance: We didn't include Ballers here.

  • 'Atypical'

    It's important to start any good list with a cheat, and more people need to watch Robia Rashid's fantastically big-hearted Netflix dramedy. Yes, Keir Gilchrist's Sam, navigating increasing independence while he and his family learn more about his autism, was the show's initial centerpiece. But its heart very quickly became Sam’s sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a budding track star whose athletic pursuit has shaped her journey and the travails of the entire Gardner clan. Will Casey be able to score a track scholarship? Will she figure out how to find love with teammate Izzie? And does any of that make Atypical a sports show? Sure it does. Like any great show, it's about many things. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Brockmire'

    Since chances are good that you missed Joel Church-Cooper's Hank Azaria vehicle during its little-seen run on IFC, all four seasons are available on Hulu. Azaria's performance as a foul-mouthed baseball announcer with a deep hatred for Joe Buck is every bit as hilarious as you'd expect from this master of funny-voiced comedy. But what's most surprising about Brockmire is how the tone becomes darker and more emotionally resonant with each year, climaxing in a fourth season set in a dystopic future marred by a global pandemic and growing audience disinterest in baseball. I mean, can you imagine such a thing? — D.F.

  • 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

    The iconic superheroine series entered the TV hall of fame long ago on the strength of its feminist representation, its emotional wisdom, its spectacular genre experiments and its somehow perfect ensemble. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which debuted on The WB two decades before Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, is perennially underrated as a showcase of female brawn and stamina. Sure, Buffy was one in a long line of supernatural Chosen Ones, but she was kicking, punching and occasionally flying through the air well before the rest of Hollywood realized female fitness isn't just for the male gaze. — INKOO KANG

  • 'Cheer'

    There's self-discipline, and then there's self-sacrifice. On the breakthrough Netflix docuseries Cheer, the two are rivetingly blurred as the co-ed members of a Texas junior-college cheerleading team train for another first-place finish at a national competition. The trophy is the goal, but much of the tension in Cheer comes from exacting head coach Monica Aldama’s dual desires: to mentor her young student-athletes during the brief period of time that she oversees their growth and to ruthlessly whittle her final team to the very best flippers, jumpers and catchers, feelings be damned. — I.K.

  • 'GLOW'

    Anybody can be an athlete and teammate, given the proper training and enough incentive for persistence. That isn't the main message of GLOW, Netflix's moving dramedy about the late '80s phenomenon Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but it's certainly a message of the show, as well as one of the series' biggest makeover allures. Everyone knows wrestling is "fake," but GLOW delights in presenting all the work that goes into the staged wins, hokey characters and choreographed performances. Their tireless efforts make the wrestlers' victories out of the ring all the sweeter. — I.K.

  • 'The League'

    For many of us, the lack of fantasy sports this summer has proved as frustrating as the lack of actual sports, and the attempt to figure out how to shoehorn three months of fantasy baseball into this bizarrely truncated season has been a major recent preoccupation. Of course, FX’s The League is really only barely about fantasy sports, much less real sports. It's about friends busting one another's chops in the most hilariously cruel ways possible — the ensemble, led by Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, Paul Scheer and Nick Kroll, is spectacular — and also is distinguished by the loose, semi-improvised structure employed by creators Jeff and Jackie Schaffer. The League happens to be available in its entirety on Hulu, unlike FX's terrific, wildly underwatched boxing drama Lights Out, which I would have loved to highlight here were it more readily available. — D.F.

  • 'Losers'

    On one of the best, and most unsung, of the 30 for 30 imitators, Mickey Duzyj's Netflix series breaks ground not just because each episode focuses on a famous sporting "loser," but because it expands our conventional definition of "sport" (and our definitions of winning and losing). Yes, showcase episodes focus on familiar figures like French skating legend Surya Bonaly and French golfer Jean van de Velde, but other episodic stars include curlers, mushers and endurance walkers. — D.F.

  • 'The Price of Gold'

    While there's any number of 30 for 30 docs we could've included on this list, Nanette Burstein's 2014 revisit of the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding still stands out for its incisive analyses of how we code female athletes and how punitive certain labels can be. An early milestone in the ongoing trend of reexamining '90s tabloid scandals, The Price of Gold remains notable for its portrait of an outraged Harding — who was locked out of the financial opportunities that she was skating for by dint of her insufficient femininity well before the attack on Kerrigan — and its exploration of the slowly widening but still too-narrow window of what desirable female strength is supposed to look like. — I.K.

  • 'Survivor's Remorse'

    Untold riches are one of the most compelling and consistently dangled promises offered to athletes who hope to go pro. But what happens after the millions arrive? Executive produced by LeBron James and business partner (and childhood friend) Maverick Carter, the thoughtful comedy Survivor's Remorse explores exactly that question as a Black family from Boston's economically depressed Dorchester neighborhood finds their golden child, Cam (Jessie Usher), joining the NBA. The rest of Cam’s relatives reel in the wake of his success — and the suddenly topsy-turvy family dynamics it brings. — I.K.

  • 'Warriors of Liberty City'

    Let's assume you're a Starz subscriber and you've already watched America to Me — and if you haven't, go do that. It might be time to check out another of the network's unscripted dramas, this one examining the intersection of childhood, urban space and sports in America today. This look at a Miami-area youth football league hails from an all-star production team including LeBron James (one of two shows listed here featuring King James and Maverick Carter as producers) and should appeal to any viewer already watching Hard Knocks or Last Chance U. (And if you're not watching those two shows, you should be.) Warriors of Liberty City is harrowing, inspiring and probing of the myths and realities tied to neighborhoods in which sports are seen as one of the few ways to achieve the American Dream. — D.F.