'Enhanced': TV Review

ESPN -Enhanced - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of ESPN Films
A compelling sports tech docuseries.

Alex Gibney's new ESPN+ docuseries explores the moral implications of high tech in sports.

Elite athletes are the superheroes of the flesh-and-blood world: Their herculean speed, strength and mind control capabilities compel billions of sports fans across the world. But what price would you pay to barrel through your physiological limits and be the very best among your peers?

With Enhanced, ESPN+’s fascinating — though constrained — six-part docuseries, 30 for 30 veteran Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Zero Days) contends with the moral implications of how technology, neuroscience and data mining continue to advance human performance. In doing so, he uncovers a multifaceted “pay to play” industrial ecology where athletes forfeit their bio data and bodily autonomy in exchange for a flicker of glory.

As it turns out, biology may not, in fact, be destiny. Each episode, led by a different director, focuses on a unique segment of the trade seeking to propel athletes forward. In “Skill,” experts use the age-old nature vs. nurture framework to parse out the intricacies of developing talent. “Algorithm Wars” exposes the dystopian underbelly of competitive sports analytics, while “Mind Gurus” explores the psychospiritual culture of brain-training. Episodes “Power,” “Endurance” and “Recovery” investigate the ethics of performance-enhancing substances, from steroids and human growth hormones to blood treatments and hydrogel carbo drinks.

The scope is comprehensive, showcasing practices and professionals across golf, running, swimming, football, soccer, baseball, skiing, volleyball, gymnastics, pole vaulting, basketball, power lifting, mixed martial arts, body building and more. Narrator Gibney frequently questions whether taking advantage of these technologies amounts to “cheating the system” or if players are merely utilizing the tools available to them. The real question he scuttles around but never directly asks: Is transhumanism another form of social justice or social stratification?

After all, when athletic culture is elevated to sci-fi levels of competitive edging, it’s hard not to wonder how these corporeal advancements will ultimately transcend the pantheon of commercial sports. Gibney’s team hurls debates and breakthroughs at dizzying speed. Experts survey the symbiosis of DNA and training, but counter that developments in data collection will eventually usurp talent recruitment and cultivation. Take neuroscouting — using computational assessment to predict whether pubescent athletes have the fine motor potential to be drafted into the big leagues directly out of high school. Or transcranial and neuropriming devices that electrically stimulate the brain during training, supposedly amplifying athletes’ neural plasticity and thus their ability to learn and adapt. Another product, Soccer Genomics, is a direct-to-consumer genetic analysis package that serves as the 23andMe for finding out whether your kid has the blueprints to become a good soccer player. If it walks like Gattaca and talks like Gattaca

One of the most chilling aspects of the series is the continuous use of manufacturing language to describe physical prowess. Bodies are compared to "machinery" and "engines." Players are “assets.” Brain functioning is “software.” Nutrition is “fuel.” The underlying futurist horror — shared matter of factly — is what makes these episodes so captivating. Gibney doesn’t go out of his way to alarm viewers; instead, he deliberately highlights how these innovations are accepted, valued and encouraged within the industry. “You’re really trying to assess speed and accuracy to better optimize their potential on the back end,” says Sean Campbell, senior director at USA Baseball, when discussing neuroscouting. It’s a roundabout way of reducing teenagers to mere "resources."

In “Algorithm,” we meet Drevian, an openhearted high schooler undergoing neuroscouting for a shot at Major League Baseball. “Whatever they need is what I’m gonna give them,” he declares. We’re left to wonder if this quantitative analysis takes away from the magic of sports — that ineffable, mystical joy of witnessing superhuman feats. Numbers eventually eliminate “gut” and “instinct,” even “hope.” 

Enhanced is a wild and invigorating look at the high-tech nuances of the sports industrial complex, but Gibney never quite goes far enough in his search for meaning within these innovations. He provides us the “what” and “how” — worth watching alone — but not enough of the "why." Why do children submit themselves to such objectification? Why do contracted players agree to compromise their privacy? Why do hopefuls push their bodies to the brink, risking opioid addiction and traumatic brain injury? We get little sense if the motivating factors are fame, money, survival, identity, college admissions or maybe even the excitement of being a bionic pioneer. These possibilities are all sprinkled into the narrative, but never deeply excavated.

Creator: Alex Gibney
Premieres: Monday (ESPN+)