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Hoops, Hogs and High Speeds

Photo by Michael GibsonSHOWTIME'S THE HOOP LIFE IS THE THIRD AND LATEST series from the so-far reliable production team of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, after the recently canceled Homicide: Life on the Street and the ongoing edgy prison drama Oz, which begins its third season July 14. Like those earlier shows, it focuses upon a fractious, fucked-up community presided over by a gruff but not unlovable authority figure, and into which enters an untested newcomer who will be changed for better and worse. (Not an unusual beginning for a TV series, to be sure -- it nearly describes The Beverly Hillbillies.) The institution under review this time is professional basketball, specifically the fictional New England Knights, a team marked if nothing else by the relatively diminutive stature of its players, drafted as they've been from the ranks of Hollywood actors. (Bill Walton, in a sportscasting cameo, towers comically above them.)

In addition to the obvious recurring question of who'll win the big game, drama is mined from office politics, the press and various sorts of off-court family business. Knowing little more of the sport than that the object is to get the ball through the hoop in order to score lucrative product endorsements, I am not fit to comment upon the verisimilitude of the portrayal, but there's little here that to the layman unduly beggars belief. I am quite prepared to accept that a sports star might find and habitually not resist the opportunity to cheat on his wife, and yet affect to love her still; that some players will brawl even when asked to behave; and that one's uncle is not necessarily the best guardian of one's career interests, especially if he drinks. It's a festival of poor impulse control.

If not immediately as gripping, novel, sensational or formally interesting as the Levinson/Fontana Company's first two series proved to be, The Hoop Life certainly has what we in the critic game call potential -- not least because of its cast, more or less headed by Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the coach and moral center, balancing the needs of his biological family with those of his dribbling charges, interposing himself between labor and management, money and honor, order and chaos. Dorian Harewood (12 Angry Men) is his old friend and new general manager; Cirroc Lofton, former young feller of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the draft-pick high school phenom, about to get really educated; Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump's Bubba), the player with a temper; and Rick Peters (who was so goofily charming, or was it charmingly goofy, in Elvis Meets Nixon), the one with the roving eye, and roving other bits as well. Two cavils: First, nobody seems to be having much fun playing ball. (It can't all be about the money and girls.) And second, though I bow to no one in my respect for naked women, I am disappointed yet again to find female flesh gratuitously, almost mechanically bared in a premium cable series, just because they can. In a show about athletes in which, even in the locker room, all the men manage to keep their shorts on, this seems especially like old-school sexism and wholly reminiscent of the way in which theatrical film went tit-crazy about 30 years ago, after the invention of the "R" rating. Let's hope it's a phase. Or else everybody gets their clothes off, permanently. That would be acceptable.

THE GREEN MONSTER, PRESENTED AS PART OF THE PBS documentary series P.O.V., tells the story, in a roundabout way, of Art Arfons, three-time holder of the land-speed record, and his attempt to break it again at an age when most men are hitching their pants up around their sternum and kvetching about the thermostat. (I won't even mention his triple bypass.) Stitched together in the usual manner, if not the usual order, out of old home movies and TV clips and new interview and action footage, it works in the bargain as a sidelong meditation on aging and ambition, daring and security, peculiarity and genius, fate and fatalism, death and defying it. (Included are some fairly upsetting wrecks; for the first five minutes I was pretty sure I was watching a film on the late Art Arfons.)

Not as well known, nor as well named, as Craig Breedlove -- with whose celebrated Spirit of America, Arfon's Green Monster repeatedly traded world records in the mid-'60s -- Art was an Ohio high school dropout who began his affair with speed after a chance encounter with a dragster produced an epiphany not unlike Mr. Toad's. A kind of "folk engineer," he worked without blueprints in his back yard on machines that, powered eventually by jet engines, would roll faster than anything else on Earth; watching him here, it seems that (like many great achievers) he was helpless to do otherwise. His life's work was perhaps not so much a matter of exercised will as it was a complete lack of resistance to a powerful idea.

While it is pretty powerful to think that at 600 miles an hour, I could get home from work in something like 20 seconds, assuming I hit all the lights, which I probably wouldn't, to drive really really fast in a straight line across the desert is an essentially useless activity, without practical dimension, not so different from collecting giant balls of string or calling your congressman. But useless is not to say pointless -- no more pointless, anyway, than painting a picture, or playing the guitar, or kissing. As director David Finn makes clear, there's an aesthetic element to the pursuit, a perceptual alteration understood only by those few who have driven 500 miles over the speed limit. (Then­record holder Richard Noble, remembering his run: "Really between about sort of 350 and about 580 or so, it got pretty boring; there really wasn't anything that one could recall . . . Until you started going really fast.") And the Green Monster is itself a beautiful thing, with that metal-creamy luster peculiar to custom automobiles, gleaming aggressively against the matte-finished Bonneville Salt Flats, which Arfons calls "a wonderful place, another planet." What happens on that dead lake bed I will not reveal, since the film does generate some genuine suspense. First-time director Finn is a lighting designer by trade, with much experience in modern dance, and he has learned something about timing. (In motion pictures, God is in the editing.) Music by the left-of-center Pell Mell and Southern Culture on the Skids helps keep things strange.

THE HONEST VOICE OF LORETTA LYNN JUMPS OUT LIKE a friendly dog from "The Three Little Pigs," the latest installment in HBO's multiculturally/sexually revisionist animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. As porcine country singer Deli Porkchop, whose Camp Piggywood (motto: "You can never be too fat or too dirty") is the setting for this "feminist" version of the old tale of huff, puff and chinny-chin-chin, she is a fresh draught of water, a daisy among orchids, a sunbeam amid the klieg lights. Certainly, she's no stranger to show biz -- I have seen the sequins. But she's no actress, either, and there is something about her husky twang and earnest delivery that commands the ear and draws the mind up the holler, or down the holler, or however it is you go into a holler, to a place past artifice.

The rest of the show's fine, too, if not as primally stirring. I'm all for messing with the old stories; that was the stuff of Shelley Duvall's great Faerie Tale Theater, and some classic Bugs Bunnys, and "Fractured Fairy Tales," to only begin what would be a long and impressive list. The basic social design of Happily Ever After is to get Hansel and Gretel out of the Schwarzwald and into the black-brown-red-yellow-white American melting pot -- for purposes of "empowerment" -- and though it can be a quick trip from there to screed, the talent the series attracts keeps it lively and nonpolemical. The cast of many colors this time includes Friend Courteney Cox (as a spoiled piglet who builds her house of jewels), Tyra Banks (as a fashion-model pig who builds her house of food) and Sandra Oh (of Arli$$), as the practical pig, a Vietnamese potbelly, who builds hers of recycled rubber and knows martial arts. The moral of the story would seem to be that she who kicks ass, laughs last, which I wouldn't care to try to disprove. Comedian Sinbad riffs heavily as the luckless wolf. The animation is fine, and anyway your kids wouldn't care too much if it weren't. Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) scripted; the humor is hammy in a most literal sense, but it's a cartoon, after all, cute and colorful and, for all I know, maybe even empowering.

THE THREE LITTLE PIGS | HBO Various times through July 27

THE GREEN MONSTER | PBS Tuesday, June 29, 10 p.m.

THE HOOP LIFE | Showtime Premieres Sunday, July 4, 10 p.m.


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