ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series officially came to an end tonight with “Pony Excess,” a look at the scandal-plagued SMU football team of the ’80s. Bill Simmons has said the concept will continue in some form – likely as a series of occasional “30 for 30 Presents” documentaries, which would include Alex Gibney’s film on Steve Bartman, which got bumped from the series proper for scheduling reasons – and I think that’s a very good thing. Though the films didn’t all live up to the image I built up in my head after that initial press tour press conference a year and a half ago, many of them did, a bunch of others were strong if not revolutionary, and only a few were out-and-out frustrating.
(I also realized that, in addition to deliberately skipping the 2004 Red Sox film due to a lack of masochism, I also never saw “Birth of Big Air” or “To the Limit: The Tim Richmond Story” because the rest of my life got in the way in those particular weeks. I’ll have to dig out those DVDs at some point.)
Earlier today, Fienberg offered up his own review of “Pony Excess,” along with a ranking of the 27 films he saw. I’m having a hard enough time doing my overall best of 2010 lists (which will almost certainly include this series) to do even more ranking work. But I will say that there was a definite top tier of “30 for 30” films, in which I’d place (in no particular order) “The Two Escobars,” “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks,” “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” “Muhammad and Larry” and “The Best That Never Was.” That’d be followed closely by a tier that includes “Into the Wind,” “Once Brothers,” “June 17, 1994” and one or two others.
As for “Pony Excess,” I liked but didn’t love it, in part because it came so close on the heels of the similar but more personal (and therefore more powerful) “The Best That Never Was,” and in part because it felt like Thaddeus D. Matula had to spend so much time telling the story that he couldn’t make room for an interesting way of how he was going to tell that story. (If it was a fiction film, we might say it got too bogged down in plot.) Even so, like so many other films of the series, it told me a story that I (as a non-colllege football fan) knew little to nothing about, and if the telling wasn’t very exciting, the story itself made up for it at times. (I still have enough newspaper ink running through my veins that, like Dan, I was most intrigued by the section about how the Dallas newspaper war led to SMU being investigated in a way that more geographically-remote Texas programs weren’t.)
So what did everybody else think of the series’ final film? And looking back, what were your favorites?