It is fitting that 30 for 30, the new documentary series debuting on ESPN tonight, is airing so soon after ESPN's Brett Favre orgy last night. The Brett Favre Brett Favre Brett FAVRE! relentlessness was ESPN at its extreme worst, an endless circle jerk of hagiography and "he's like a kid out there, and every game is like his first." The 30 for 30 series is designed like a rebuke to that.
The series was partly the brain child of popular ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, and features 30 different independent filmmakers — including Spike Jonze, Albert Maysles, Ron Shelton, and Ice Cube — looking at specific stories from the 30 years of ESPN's existence. It's not a countdown show, a "Top 10 Events of 1994" thing; the filmmakers had complete autonomy in telling their tales. There's Shelton on Michael Jordan's days in the minor leagues, John Singleton on Marion Jones, Alex Gibney on Steve Bartman, and Steve James on the infamous arrest of high-school basketball phenom Allen Iverson. Most intriguing locally is Barbara Kopple's film on the twilight of George Steinbrenner, which comes out next year and features exclusive access to the Steinbrenner family (access the rest of us reporters have been trying to get for years).
The first episode, airing tonight, is from Peter Berg, director of Friday Night Lights and Hancock, about the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, and what that meant for hockey, as well as for Los Angeles. We've seen the first four episodes — the one you've probably heard about is Mike Tollin's film about the USFL, in which he makes Donald Trump look like an idiot, which is always fun — and they're all so different from what you expect from ESPN that you wonder how Simmons and company got away with it.
We spoke to Simmons last month for a future magazine story about his upcoming book, and he admitted that it was highly unusual for the Bristol suits to get behind an idea like this.
People seem to be disappointed in ESPN a lot, a lot of "why don't they do this?" and "why don't they do that?" There's a lot of complaining. I think this is a case where all of it's good. I really don't see how anybody could be against any of this. Basically, we spent a lot of money to give all the creative control to other people. We haven't meddled with them, we're not interfering. We've just basically trusted that they would deliver this creative entity. I think that's some pretty good stuff for ESPN. I don't think they would've been able to do that five years ago.
Berg's first episode, "Kings Ransom," debuts at 8 p.m. tonight. If the Twins-Tigers game is over, or at least decided, by then, you are hereby highly encouraged to check it out. It's a lot better than you think it is.