TV Tonight: Is 'Hard Knocks' the Summer's Best Reality TV Show?

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I know Tuned In is usually a place on Wednesdays to read all about Top Chef – a show that I used to be obsessed with. But in recent weeks, as the cooking competition has skewed more extreme and predictable, another show has risen up to dominate not just the 10 p.m. hour on Wednesdays, but the weekly slate of reality TV contenders. It’s HBO’s Hard Knocks, a behind-the-scenes look at pro football teams in the throes of training camp. And with this year’s focus on the New York Jets, the team’s ebullient and foul-mouthed coach Rex Ryan, and an exciting production design that’s made the series more filmic than ever before, the formula has achieved something of a perfect balance. Even if you could care less about football, consider this your formal invitation: Check out Hard Knocks tonight.

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It’s a series that’s been around for several years, hopping from team to team with each successive off-season But something about the Jets – with all the subplots churning away underneath, all the iconic personalities both on the field and along the sidelines – is a perfect match for HBO’s behind-the-scenes / hidden-mic voyeurism (watch the full first episode of the season here). This crew is an entertaining bunch, led by Ryan, a lively, boorish, passionate firebrand, the kind of coach that dozens of football films have unsuccessfully tried to replicate. He talks smack with his players as if they’re playing touch football in the park, all the while keeping meticulous notes about who’s working the hardest, being the most vocal in their support of teammates, mentoring their younger colleagues, and making colossal mistakes. He cuts the prospects who don’t have a prayer of making the team, and then completes bed checks on those who remain. He hands over a pile of papers to the team’s biggest stars – printouts of all the negative news articles from last season. Just a little bedtime motivation.

With Ryan serving as the show’s primary anchor, this season has found a steady, rapid momentum, – and also a central tentpole around which the producers can string an impressive web of tangents. There’s the training camp holdout vying for more money and the coaches who frantically try to meet his demands, all the while playing damage control in the press briefings. There’s the parade of fullbacks all vying for limited slots on the roster, knowing that with each snap of the ball in practice, they are being scrutinized and evaluated. There’s the special teams coach confronting a room full of unknowns, all new faces to the team trying to find a back door through which they can get onto the team. There are the coaches meetings, field trips, family days, pranks and dorm rooms that slowly start to build the kind of camaraderie that will become essential during a two-minute drill in week 12 of the regular season. And, of course, there are the pre-season games that the public actually sees, which, each and every weekend, shake up the whole narrative of training camp. One bad or brilliant play on Sunday night? Your fortunes can change instantly.

It’s like two dozen separate Super Bowls, playing out alongside one other. For each and every new player, this is the most important game of their life.

Bear in mind: I’m no sports addict. I’m a fair-weather football fan at best, but not a huge sports television guy. ESPN is not typically watched in my apartment. But there’s something riveting about this show – about how this procession of talent begins to congeal into an efficient, energized whole. I’m particularly obsessed with the story of veteran Vernon Gholston, who for years struggled on the Jets defense, until he agreed to take a paycut in the off-season and to move to a different role on the field in the hopes that he might get his groove back. Practice by practice, Gholston comes around, and we see Ryan marveling at the beauty of a great player finally finding his niche. And then there’s the special teams player who comes through in the clutch, with a punt block in the season opener in the Jets’ new stadium. As the days tick by in camp, we see players confer with coaches, coordinate with teammates and even commit themselves to their workout routines alone in the gym, finishing the reps and putting in the time because they know this is what will make the difference between starter and second string.

Whatever your passion, their devotion is an inspiring sight to behold.

The show’s directors and cameramen somehow recognize these moments as they happen, and then turn around all the footage in only a matter of days, giving us a near-real-time peek into the process. I honestly have no idea how they are able to take something that happened last week, and edit it all into something comprehensible for this week’s time slot. And while I may not be a football expert, I do know TV, and a good drama when I see it. Ryan, and his orbiting dramas of emotional turmoil, elicit a whole lot of empathy, and curiosity. I’ve come to actually start caring about this team in training (despite the fact that I’m a Packers fan). And while other reality TV competition shows have started to favor style over substance, recreations and narrations over primary footage, and caricatures over rational human beings, I see in Hard Knocks all the competition, personality and spontaneity I once saw in Top Chef.

I know what I’ll be watching tonight. Maybe you could at least set your DVR to record.