No, you’re not imagining things. There have been a whole lot of coaches on your TV and/or laptop screens over the past year — a boon for a captive audience desperately craving inspiration to avoid getting bogged down in society’s bleakness.
There are the real-life, obscenity-spewing gurus of Netflix’s Last Chance U; the animated, obscenity-spewing trainer of Netflix’s best-forgotten Hoops; the reticently returning Gordon Bombay on Disney+’s Mighty Ducks: Game Changers; and the grieving NHL veteran at the center of HBO Max’s Beartown. Then, of course, there is the dean of this pack: Jason Sudeikis’ eponymous hero in Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, a man so boundlessly uplifting that his actual knowledge of the sport he’s coaching is irrelevant.
Eager to keep its viewership stirred up, Disney+ is unveiling its second coach-centric sports show in less than a month with Big Shot, possibly the streamer’s first series to be sold on the names of its creative team, led by David E. Kelley, Brad Garrett and Dean Lorey, rather than a blockbuster brand. As a sucker for underdog sports dramas, I found Big Shot reasonably effective, while at the same time feeling that it was more of an outline for a TV series than a show with a world of actually developed characters.
John Stamos stars as Marvyn Korn, a championship-level college basketball coach who, in a swift montage in the opening two minutes, hurls a chair in rage, hits a referee and instantly becomes unemployable. The only job his agent can get him is coaching the team at a girl’s private school in San Diego, warning Marvyn that this job could offer redemption or could spell the end of his career. Marvyn is welcomed warily by the school’s no-nonsense dean (Yvette Nicole Brown) — forced to hire him by a powerful booster — and more enthusiastically by assistant coach Holly Barrett (Jessalyn Gilsig). In most versions of this story, Holly would probably resent Coach Korn for stealing the job she wanted, but here she doesn’t really have any specific personality beyond “formerly married.”
The girls on the team are cautious about their brusque, whistle-tweeting, feelings-hurting new leader, especially team star Louise (Nell Verlaque), social media sensation Olive (Monique Green) and Destiny (Tiana Le), who takes immediate umbrage when Coach Korn tells her she needs to lose five pounds.
I’m not sure Disney+ has done a good job projecting that Big Shot isn’t a comedy; you can see how this description might lead to an expectation of Bad News Bears-type hijinks. But one of my favorite things about the show is how it steers into situations that could be sitcom-y and then avoids easy punchlines. This isn’t a team of hilariously inept misfits tripping over shoelaces and bouncing balls off of each other’s faces. They’re an undersized crew losing games because other schools have better players, but you can see immediately that with some proper motivation, they could become a team.
The avoidance of cliché is welcome. At the same time, in reducing the gulf between the team Coach Korn inherits and the team we know they’ll become, Big Shot reduces its dramatic arc to nearly nothing. “Ragtag misfits have to learn the game from scratch to go from ineptitude to champions” is a gripping story. “Average players learn to pass and become better” is a training montage. If Big Shot were fully invested in the individual players, perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem, but the players’ backstories after three episodes (out of 10) sent to critics can be boiled down to “daddy issues,” “daddy issues” and more “daddy issues.”
Those include both issues with their actual fathers and issues with Coach Korn, their primary male authority figure outside the home. (It must be noted that, to this viewer at least, the pilot contains a couple of creepy moments — one intentionally and the other not — in which teenage girls reflect on how cute Coach is). Coach Korn — who has his own daddy issues and his own issues as a daddy to teenage Emma (Sophia Mitri Schloss) — is another element ripe for clichés that the show sidesteps, both to its benefit and its detriment.
The version of Coach Korn you’re likely expecting is somewhat of a raging asshole, probably with inevitable alcoholism and sins to atone for. Coach Korn, though, is more of a cipher. He’s not an awful person; he’s just a person who cares only about basketball and winning and thus can sometimes say mean things. But his obsession is with winning is also so complete that he doesn’t take long to realize that if his new charges won’t respond to abuse, he’ll have to change. He’s not a good person, but he’s not opposed to learning. He’s not a great father, but he’s not opposed to trying harder. If the thrown chair didn’t happen 45 seconds into the show, you’d never understand that this guy was hitting rock bottom; there’s nowhere really dramatic for this journey to take him.
Beyond similarities between Coach Korn and legendary-but-notorious coaches like Bobby Knight and particularly Rick Pitino — if Stamos was born to play anyone, it’s Rick Pitino — there’s not much of a character here at all, which leaves Stamos with very little to play other than the generally clever dialogue. Still, the Full House veteran is a sturdy lead and has good comic chemistry with Brown and several of the actresses on the team; good sentimental chemistry with Schloss; and some decent banter with Gilsig (though I’m curious if a budding romance was another cliché that was scrubbed, leaving nothing in its place).
Big Shot plays more like a template than a fully realized show, but Kelley, returning to the world of striving underdogs after dedicating several years to the pampered patricians of The Undoing and Big Little Lies, knows the terrain well. Episodes run only 44 minutes apiece — that’s what happens if you remove heightened conflict or anything mature — and are welcomely brisk. When early directors, led by Bill D’Elia, push those sports-driven emotional buttons, it works, in a perfunctory sort of way.
If you want adult drama from your TV coaching, Beartown will still have to suffice, and Big Shot won’t fill the Ted Lasso-shaped comic hole in your heart. But I like the potential here and hope the show develops a stronger sense of what niche — or niche within a niche — it’s trying to occupy.
Cast: John Stamos, Jessalyn Gilsig, Yvette Nicole Brown, Richard Robichaux, Sophia Mitri Schloss, Nell Verlaque, Tiana Le, Monique Green, Tisha Custodio and Cricket Wampler
Creators: David E. Kelley & Dean Lorey & Brad Garrett
New episodes premiere Fridays on Disney+ starting April 16.