'Doc & Darryl': TV Review

Doc Darryl Still ESPN H 2016
Michael Bonfiglio
Good-not-great. The O.J. doc spoiled us.

Michael Bonfiglio and Judd Apatow's 30 for 30 documentary looks at Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.

After dabbling in longform greatness with Ezra Edelman's five-part O.J.: Made in America, the most enriching and gripping TV program of 2016, ESPN's 30 for 30 franchise is back on less remarkable, but still engaging and sometimes nourishing, footing with Doc & Darryl from directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio.

Doc & Darryl is the latest entry in what has become the most venerable of 30 for 30 subgenres, the interlinked two-hander, and the most popular sub-subgenre, the two-hander reunion. Docs in that broader 30 for 30 category have included Muhammad and Larry, Unmatched, Once Brothers, No Más, Slaying the Badger, Youngstown Boys, Brothers in Exile and Chasing Tyson, with filmmakers loving the opportunity to juxtapose and parallel sports figures whose careers were defined either in comparison, tandem or contrast to one another.

Darryl Strawberry and Dwight "Doc" Gooden are a logical pairing for a film of this sort. When the New York Mets were pulling out of their post-Tom Seaver morass in the early 1980s, both men were high first-round draft picks out of high school, thrust into the majors as potential franchise saviors in consecutive years, each winning Rookie of the Year. In 1986, Doc and The Straw helped lead the Mets to a World Series title and it looked like the team was built around enough future Hall of Famers that a true dynasty was possible. But both players had already fallen victim to their own demons, to the Big Apple and to the hard-partying ways of their teammates and what followed was a string of disappointments, injuries, illnesses, suspensions, incarcerations and diminished expectations. Instead of a dynasty, the Mets ended up with only one championship, one [mis]credited as often to Bill Buckner's rickety defense as to the performance of its superstars.

"It's probably not my heartache to have," longtime Mets fan Jon Stewart says of the post-1986 disappointment in Doc & Darryl. "That's theirs."

And, indeed, disappointment lingers heavily over Doc & Darryl, which is built around a conceit in which Gooden and Strawberry meet at a Queens diner for their first in-depth conversation in years.

"I've had my share of those," Gooden smiles as he drives by a car wreck on the way to the diner.

Whether he's speaking literally or metaphorically, it's the sort of footage that makes documentary filmmakers giddy, almost an omen from the storytelling gods that their structural gambit was meant to be.

It really wasn't. There's something confusing and unnecessary about Gooden and Strawberry sitting in an empty diner, not really eating and not really drinking, despite insert shots of staff back in the kitchen making burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches for nobody in particular. And while Gooden and Strawberry are reasonably candid in their new studio interviews, conducted against a backdrop of floodlights, together they mostly engage in small talk and platitudes, and any time you expect them to have a bone of contention or a point of illumination, the confrontation fizzles. Whether it's Gooden rushing through an explanation of missing the 1986 victory parade or Strawberry hastily denying that he narced Doc's cocaine use out to management, there's no feeling that these are men given the opportunity to discuss long-buried moments from misspent youth, rather that it's just two old buddies reunited to say that, yeah, nobody else will ever have the same understanding of what they went through.

For a documentary I'd still praise in the balance, it's interesting how many other elements of Doc & Darryl feel like near-misses.

When talking about the baseball side of things, many members of the New York media share memories and tall tales, but very few players from those Mets teams make it on-camera. You have Keith Hernandez, a man with an ample reputation himself, playing needlessly coy and saying things like, "I can only tell you we had some fun." No. This is not true. Tell us stories. And then you have Davey Johnson, whose complete and utter obliviousness about what his young superstars were up to off-the-field is either naive, disingenuous or blatantly negligent, depending on your perspective on managerial responsibility. Somebody like a Ron Darling, who has made a third career out of writing and talking about that 1986 team, might have been a welcome presence. A Ray Knight, whose personality was viewed as being at odds with many of his teammates, also could have delivered an interesting counterpoint. Another of those 30 for 30 subgenres is the chronicle of the dysfunctional team somehow able to come together to achieve greatness, and Doc & Darryl doesn't really have the representation to do that side of things well.

Probably Apatow and Bonfiglio are more interested in yet another 30 for 30 favorite focus, the chronicle of addiction and how it can derail greatness and how, ideally, peace can be found in recovery. Poster boys for cycles of abuse and relapse, Strawberry and Gooden are good with listing their excesses and how they were able to occasionally cheat the MLB testing system and themselves. Having both done their share (more than their share) of 12-step programs and prison counseling, they have great grasps on their biographies and how to link their childhoods to their adult demons. Two of their addiction specialists are featured in the documentary and the insidious power of addiction against even the most earnest attempts at going clean is hard to dispute. Almost unconnected to their words, there's a real sadness that comes from footage of the preternaturally gifted superstars — Strawberry with that smooth, looping uppercut; Gooden with that unmatched arm speed — juxtaposed with their current faces, maps of an arduous journey but still capable of those familiar smiles.

Perhaps respecting the disease of addiction and accepting that accountability for that addiction is accountability for other behaviors, Bonfiglio and Apatow don't push for explanations or remorse about a number of misdeeds. Gooden's dancing up to and around 1992 sexual assault allegations is infuriating, as is Strawberry's very casual mention of spousal abuse. The documentary doesn't avoid these things, but it doesn't go very deep.

With all of these threads that offer some interest, but also fall short of full realization, Doc & Darryl is part of another frequent 30 for 30 trend of quite knowing what length it wants to be. In the first 30 for 30 batch, the best of the best, most of the docs were kept to under an hour and they were tight, efficient tellings of often niche-y stories. As the franchise has continued and stories have often become broader, there have ceased to be rules and you get a lot of tweeners. Doc & Darryl could have either been a laser-focused 50-minute film or an in-depth 100-minute film — instead, it's a good-not-great 78-minute film.

There's nothing wrong with good-not-great or with 78 minutes, but O.J.: Made in America perhaps created the illusion that any 30 for 30 could be a seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece.

Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)