Over the last decade, Hard Knocks, HBO’s once vanguardian behind-the-scenes docuseries that follows an NFL team during training camp, has become a perennial formulaic rehash of the same old story lines. We’ve become conditioned to root for comebacks by formerly injured players and to fall in love with amiable, bottom-of-the-roster no-names only to share in their pain when they’re ultimately cut in the last episode. We’ve watched countless hours of the same generic, bloviating, and profanity-laden coach’s speeches and rolled our collective eyes at the obviously staged, “silly” off-field antics. If it weren’t for the uniforms and camera resolution changing by the year, it would be impossible to determine which season is which. It’s become as predictable as your well-meaning aunt sending you vaccine misinformation through Facebook Messenger.
And I can’t get enough of it.
Though the tropes are as familiar as that smell in your house that you no longer smell because you’re so used to it — but make no mistake, other people still smell — I’m obsessed with the show. The hair on my arms still stands at hearing the theme’s triumphant horns. I am still soothed into practical liquidity by narrator Liev Schreiber’s dulcet baritone and his Hugo Weaving-esque phrasing. I’m still fascinated by even the few random seconds of footage in meeting rooms or of film dissection. I am as enthralled as ever by the Renaissance beauty of slow-motion images of 300-pound human slabs of beef blasting into each other with the full force of the Kool-Aid Man on PCP. It is annual stop-down television for me, so at whatever point over the summer I learned that my favorite team would be this season’s subject, I, like Coach Mike McCarthy, “almost drove my truck off the road.” (I drive a Prius, but you get the point).
However, sadly, through the two episodes that have aired as of the time of this writing, I have to say I’m a little underwhelmed and I’m not really sure why. America’s Team™ is rife with Hard Knock’s usual fodder. The stuff the producers live for has been tee’d up and highlighted in glowing radioactive ink — Dak’s ankle injury recovery, Zeke’s childlike goofiness, a rookie phenom in Micah Parsons, and of course Jerry Jones’ crack-like camera addiction. This should have been set up as the greatest season of the series ever. Perhaps it’s those very expectations playing on me, but this year, the show just seems flat. With the exception of Dak’s opening dialogue about scars, the most riveting revelation has been how much salt Jerry sprinkles on a breakfast sandwich. (Startlingly, it’s enough to raise the resting systolic blood pressure of an African white rhino by 30mmHg.)
In fairness, a new shoulder injury has stalled what likely would have been the series’ main thread: Dak’s progress toward inevitably winning Comeback Player of the Year. (Mark it!) Though there are potentially several other intriguing story lines, HBO seems hard-pressed to be able to find them. When second-year quarterback Ben DiNucci has to carry an episode, you know you’re in trouble. His presence on camera is every bit as groan-inducing as his presence on the field.
Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons has been one of the few bright spots. Aside from dominating in practice and his limited play in the preseason games (ignoring his pleas, DC Dan Quinn has capped the first-round pick’s snap count), he’s shown personality and intelligence (despite being routed by The Nooch at chess). His camera time has certainly helped shed some of his questionable off-field behavior at Penn State, and he’s quickly becoming an easy guy to root for.
Aside from Parsons, the biggest glaring reveal by the show so far has been in laying bare exactly what an out-of-touch dork Mike McCarthy is. Showing clips of predominantly white audience-appreciated comedy to mostly Black athletes who were in diapers when it was originally in theaters is not necessarily the sign of an effective motivator. “Mojo moments?” That’s the best you’ve got? I guess at least he’s moved up a few decades from the Gallagher routine he was running last year to get his team to play.
By the time eyes read this, a new episode will have aired, and it might end up being the best hour of television since Breaking Bad’s “Felina,” but I have the fear that the Cowboys brass has a lock on what content can be shown and are allowing only the driest and most boring details to air, and it will largely continue the yawn-inducing quality of this year’s series. But, hey, I’m a sucker for it and will be tuned in all the same.