The WNBA turns 25 this year.
To mark the occasion, the league teamed up with Nike to design three stunning series of new jerseys for each of its twelve embarrassingly talent-stacked teams. The most exciting of these, branded “Rebel,” takes what the NBA has done with its City jerseys, and adds a feminist narrative twist—think an abstract design of broken glass for the Chicago Sky, or a parchment-colored ribbon printed with the words of the 19th Amendment that traces the path of the 2017 Women’s March for the Washington Mystics. (Or, if pop culture crossover is more your speed, think the Stranger Things-inspired joint the Indiana Fever will be sporting, which comes complete with a subtly placed “011” badge on the belt of the shorts.) For a league that didn’t even have official “home white” jerseys until this year (see: the “Heroine” series), this drop is huge.
And why shouldn’t it be? Women’s basketball has long been a hotbed of excellence—I mean, if you follow the men’s game, you hopefully already know that the WNBA is full of your favorite players’ favorite players. Its pop culture profile, though, especially in the United States, has absolutely skyrocketed this past year. Between Maya Moore’s monumental victory getting Jonathan Irons’ conviction overturned, the Atlanta Dream’s steel-spined bravery chasing their hateful owner out of both her seat in the Senate and her team shares, and the entire league’s pride in leading as both activists and organizers, the WNBA has proven to be a consistently bright spot in a time of darkness—and that’s on top of running a protracted Wubble season that led Sue Bird to her fourth championship ring. Add in a 2020/2021 Rookie class that includes Oregon phenom Sabrina Ionescu, who was snapped up by the New York Liberty in the 2020 Draft, and Arizona superstar Aari McDonald, who will be snapped up by some lucky team in the 2021 Draft this Thursday, and you’ve got yourself a bonafide women’s basketball moment.
Which is what makes the absolute hollowness of Disney+’s new family sports dramedy, the David E. Kelley and Dean Lorey-created Big Shot, such an astounding disappointment. At a moment when the potential to finally make women’s basketball a mainstream phenomenon is so real, to introduce as big a swing-and-a-miss* as Big Shot to the mix—literally A DAY after the 2021 Draft!—feels not just like a lost opportunity, but an insult.
(*I’d apologize for mixing my sports metaphors, but with a creative team as happy to admit their absolutely galling lack of basketball knowledge as Big Shot has in producer Bill D’Elia and star John Stamos, I’m not convinced the show would notice.)
In case you’ve missed the recent ramp-up of Big Shot promos, the deal is this: chronically charismatic sitcom legend John Stamos stars as Marvyn Korn, a desperately uncharismatic college basketball coach who loses his job after throwing a chair at a ref’s back in the middle of a championship game. Finding himself summarily blacklisted from every coaching job his record might otherwise have qualified him for, Korn is stuck taking the only gig that will stoop to have him, at a high school all the way on the other side of the country. Not just any high school, either, as his manager (Alan Arkin) grimly warns him—a girls high school. And even they are only willing to take him because their richest benefactor (Michael Trucco) has a daughter whose future NCAA career is worth risking the safety of a whole bevy of teen girls in order to secure.
In terms of setting up the kind of fish-out-of-water story Big Shot wants to tell, this really couldn’t be much bleaker. It would be one thing if the series evinced any kind of winking awareness of the fact that it might be a bit out of touch, in the year of Our Ladies Aari McDonald, Paige Buekers, and Caitlin Clark 2021, to frame the prospect of coaching teen girls as literally the worst professional punishment someone like Korn could possibly receive. Or if it used Korn’s hiring over the perfectly capable assistant coach Westbrook High already had in Coach Holly (Jessalyn Gilsig) as a way to introduce a really timely and compelling story about the steady attrition of female leadership at all levels of the women’s game. It would also be something if, once the story moved on to introduce the girls Korn will be spending the rest of Season 1 coaching, the script betrayed anything like a nuanced understanding of (let alone respect for) the current state of Teen TV, the most clever example of which, arguably, is just a few clicks away on Disney+ itself. Honestly, it would just be something if the show demonstrated any consistency at all in its own understanding of whatever interpersonal dynamics and internal motivations might be driving its central characters.
Instead, what we get is a chaotic kind of emptiness. On the teen side, while the clutch of young actors who make up Westbrook’s basketball team are charming and do what they can with the scripts they’re given (Tiana Le, as the plainspoken Destiny, is a particular standout in the few episodes provided for review), what little insight we’re given into their respective characters is just deeply, deeply dull. As for what Korn’s story is meant to be, meanwhile (beyond an incomprehensible apologia for emotional abuse as “coaching” tactic, that is), I’m still not convinced even Big Shot knows for sure. There’s a possible friendship for him in Gilsig’s Holly, but his disinterest in pursuing literally any human connection outside of basketball is so visceral that it reads as central to his character, rather than some temporary flaw to be overcome. There’s a teen daughter (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who comes to live with him, but what he actually wants out of a relationship with her is so poorly drawn as to be utterly indecipherable. There’s victory for him to pursue on the court with his new players, of course, but when he sets up what feels like a wild goal for them to set their collective sights on midway through the third episode, why he picks that goal over any other feels completely arbitrary. In any case, we’re never given enough of a sense of how skilled the team is as a whole to know whether or not what he picked is achievable, and if it is, what each of them might have to do individually for the team to achieve it.
Oh, and did I mention? This is all being filmed cinéma vérité style, like The Office, sans talking head confessionals, or like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, sans any sense of meta warmth or sly comedic adaptability. Basically, it’s a mess, and it doesn’t even have the good grace to be a fun one.
Now, it’s obviously bad luck having to launch a fish-out-of-water coaching dramedy so soon after the critically beloved Ted Lasso set that particular niche genre’s bar so dang high*. I mean, okay, Disney+’s own The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers managed to make a pretty decent go of it when it premiere last month, but between that franchise’s rock-solid history and Lauren Graham’s unwavering charm, Game Changers’ inevitable success was basically a given. Big Shot, though? Honestly, all comparisons to Ted Lasso aside, Big Shot was always going to have trouble meeting the moment. It’s hard to imagine, after all, that after four+ years of Trump and 1+ years of a global pandemic, American audiences will have built up any kind of appetite for a Bobby Knight-style anti-hero, nevermind one who’s sloughed off on a bunch of teenage girls as “punishment” for his abusive behavior.
(*Of note, Ted Lasso manages, not incidentally, to show both greater respect for and a deeper knowledge of women’s basketball in this single SAG Awards bit than Big Shot manages to accomplish in its first three episodes.)
It’s harder still to imagine is the possibility that, after all the necessary, unapologetically intense conversations about racial inequity and social justice that Black folks working in both Hollywood and the (W)NBA have mounted these past few years, there’d be an audience for any show about basketball that couldn’t bother to staff more than a single Black writer (IMDb includes Alyson Fouse in its list of Big Shot writers, but credits her only as co-executive Producer. Not promising, either way!), or acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement that is fueling so much of the current basketball moment, women’s and men’s. I can’t imagine it will be lost on many people, here, in 2021, that this is a show created by two rich white guys, about another rich white guy, whose (presumably rich) white guy manager gets him a job coaching the rich white daughter of a fourth rich white guy. The Westbrook team has exactly one (1) Black player who has enough lines to be considered a character. This may be accurate for a private girls’ school in La Jolla (I’m not local, I have no idea), but it certainly isn’t a look that demonstrates that the show has thought much about how basketball and Blackness intersect in America.
To then have what watered-down, out-of-touch story that’s still available to Big Shot told so clumsily, and with such a tin ear not just for where the cultural conversation is around both teen girls and women’s basketball today? Man, it’s all just a bummer.
In some ways, it’s nice to see Disney+ make such a colossal misstep. From Hot Space Dad & Baby Yoda to High School Musical: 2 Meta 2 Fabulous to Agatha All Along (now in stereo!), the pop culture Voltron that is Disney+ has spent the last two years just churning out hit after hit after blockbuster hit. Even its less splashy offerings—Encore!, Muppets Now, Diary of a Future President , etc.—have been well (if more quietly so) received. It might be fair to say The Right Stuff flopped, but with its Nat Geo origins, that hardly counted as a Disney+ Original to begin with. Big Shot, though—with its primetime pedigree and its top-line talent, it should have been another contender. That it so obviously isn’t makes Disney’s increasingly secure stranglehold over Hollywood feel a little less suffocating.
So, please: go ahead and take the L on this one, Disney. You’ve got a solid youth sports drama in Game Changers, and an exceptional musical teen comedy in HSMTMTS. And as for anyone genuinely interested in watching a new generation of women set a basketball court on fire, the 2021 WNBA season starts May 14, and a League Pass to watch every game, on demand, on any device, costs a laughably paltry $4.99.
In the meantime, if you want to watch a fun and frothy teen dramedy that features a championship-level high school coach trying to teach rich kids in sunny SoCal lessons both on and off the field, and that’s made by people who actually know and care about the worlds their story is set in, maybe check out All American on the CW. That’s a show that gets it.
Big Shot premieres Friday, April 15, on Disney+, where the monthly subscription cost currently stands at $6.99.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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