CLEVELAND - A week in the life of a NFL team is stuffed into a half hour in a new Travel Channel reality series starring the Cleveland Browns.
‘NFL Road Tested: Cleveland Browns' gives you a taste of the preparations for gameday from the players you see on the field to the men and women behind the scenes.
The show follows a linear structure, going day-by-day up to the culmination point on Sunday. A narrator details the events and introduces the people we need to know. He also tries to concisely explain the heart wrenching history of the Browns. That's a difficult feat to achieve in about 30 seconds.
One caveat as you watch the show: it is produced by owner Jimmy Haslam's wife Dee's company RIVR Media. Just something to keep in mind when it comes to tone and presentation.
The new owner never becomes the overwhelming focus of the show you might expect him to be. He makes a couple of appearances, at the show's opening coming off a plane, then later in the team's locker room getting the game ball and giving a postgame speech following the San Diego win. The narrator does make sure though that we know Haslam has "injected life" into the team and says "for the first time in a long time there's a reason for optimism."
Players and non-players are given almost equal attention which makes for an interesting and unexpected dynamic. It isn't a player but the Browns' 66-year-old equipment assistant Mike Thatcher who is the star of the show.
We're introduced to Thatcher, a retired salesman, as he sits in the locker room cleaning shoes and reminiscing about a cameo he made in the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption.' He even has a screenshot on his phone. It's real, endearing and funny.
"Thatch" is just one of a number of people introduced in the first episode, most of whom are not given enough time to engage the audience.
Monday, head coach Pat Shurmur meets with the media, exuding about as much energy as Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller." Let's just say MTV probably won't be calling for ‘Shurmured' anytime soon.
Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden are one of the many focuses, underlining the new movement and going forward. The two rookies take in the Cavs season opener on their one off day on Tuesday of the game week.
"Everywhere you go people recognize you," Weeden says. That usually happens when you're an NFL quarterback. Well, unless you're like Ryan Lindley. He could probably stay inconspicuous for a few hours at a mall.
Weeden and Richardson talk to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert who has a ‘thank you fans' moment. Think he doesn't know the cameras are all around him?
Before break, a chiseled Richardson stands next to Jim Brown, one of the greatest Browns of all time. Richardson tells Brown, ‘thank you' before the two exchange a handshake and hug. Cool to see ‘legend' and ‘future' side-by-side.
Contrasting the rookies is veteran kicker Phil Dawson. One of Cleveland's most reliable has a shoe closet that could make a teenage girl jealous. Of course, it's full of kicking shoes and not heels or stilettos.
Wednesday, Dawson and Weeden evaluate balls prepared by team staff and how each like a different style. It's an interesting tidbit that arguably plays into the show's overarching theme.
So too do the field preparations head groundskeeper Chris Powell makes after Superstorm Sandy, the different kicking shoes Thatcher counts in Dawson's locker before the game and a Dawson sound bite about which shoes to wear for the best footing.
It finally all comes together when in the final stanza, we see that this was the game where Phil Dawson was the only Browns player to score, kicking five field goals in a loss to the Ravens. Dawson is the featured player of this episode because, well, he was the Browns' MVP that day.
Other pieces of the show though, like a tribute for military week, become overlooked. An emotional halftime moment with Bernie Kosar and a military family fails to make the full impact because we get so little background on the lost soldier, brief interviews with his parents telling us who he is. It's a good story but needs more time to breath.
That's the problem with ‘Road Tested.'
Thirty minutes is not enough time to flesh out characters. Thatcher is by far the most painted and interesting one. His Shawshank anecdote while just hanging out in the locker room is the most off-the-cuff, real moment of the show. As is him standing on the sideline uttering, "We need a touchdown badly."
In trying to go through the whole week in a short period of time, ‘Road Tested' gives you just a taste of each day but loses focus, hopping through people and places.
We jump from an equipment manager, to player, to a military tribute, then to game action. However, there's not enough exposition to make it all compelling.
While there is a fly-on-the-wall nature which is sometimes captured, episode one feels rushed, trying to cram too much into too little time. The show finds interesting details but needs
to better streamline its story. A strict adherence to the chronological structure that this episode follows could make that a challenge.
Shows like HBO's ‘Hard Knocks' are made great by the characters and seeing another side of the players and coaches. That behind-the-scenes insider stuff is fun to watch.
‘Road Tested' got the gist of this idea. There are some cute candid moments, including hand signals Dawson has with his wife. It also deserves kudos for being beautifully shot, scenes like a dinner with Dawson, Colt McCoy and their spouses dazzling to the eye.
Like the team it's profiling, 'Road Tested' has potential but needs to settle in and find a comfort zone in coming weeks to elevate its game.