It never made sense to me that ESPN decided to ditch the “30 for 30” documentary name. Yes, Bill Simmons had come up with the idea to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary. But the original run of “30 for 30” films ran well into ESPN’s 31st anniversary year, and sometimes, a brand name transcends its literal meaning. (20th Century Fox didn’t suddenly change to 21st Century Fox, for instance.) When “30 for 30” ended, ESPN continued to put out some good documentaries under the “ESPN Films Presents” banner, but they appeared irregularly, you couldn’t set a DVR season pass for them, and it didn’t have that same cumulative feeling that the original series had. I made a point to watch nearly all the “30 for 30” docs (skipping the Red Sox one for partisan reasons and missing one or two others due to scheduling), and that same completist’s impulse simply wasn’t there for the “ESPN Films Presents” movies that followed.
So I’m glad that reason has prevailed, and that “30 for 30” is returning as an ongoing series tonight at 8 with “Broke,” directed by Billy Corben, whose “The U” was part of the initial run.
“Broke” tells what’s by now a very familiar story: how do so many professional athletes who sign contracts worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, wind up losing all their money? It’s a trend that’s been covered exhaustively in both print and on television (“Broke” even features a few clips from an ESPN “Outside the Lines” show on the subject), but Corben breathes new life into it with an exhaustive, intimate series of interviews with athletes both famous (Bernie Kosar, Curt Schilling, Andre Rison) and more obscure (former Yankees pinch-running specialist Homer Bush). He gets them all(*) to really open up about the many ways and motivations for throwing their money away; every time the film threatens to feel repetitive, we get some remarkable new detail about a business deal gone awry, or a surprising emotional moment. (Kosar’s explanation for why he let his father mismanage his money is devastating.)
(*) Well, nearly all. Schilling gets off relatively easy for the catastrophic failure of his video game company 38 Studios, which wound up impacting the economy of an entire state (Rhode Island). It’s an ongoing story, so Schilling may have been limited in what he could say, and/or Corben may have been limited in terms of meeting his deadline, but it stands out in comparison to the complete candor and self-flagellation of the other subjects.
“Broke” is followed next week by “9.79*,” directed by Daniel Gordon. It also tells a very familiar story – Ben Johnson being stripped of his Olympic sprinting gold medal in 1988 because he failed a drug test – but works because Gordon managed to get every runner from that 100m race (including Johnson’s famous American rival Carl Lewis) to participate, and to be fairly candid about what led them to that moment in time, and then what happened after.
I wouldn’t put either of these films in the “30 for 30” upper echelon(**), but they’re solid additions to the brand, very entertaining and well worth your time if, like me, you’re a fan of sports documentaries and appreciate that ESPN’s approach with this series creates a string of idiosyncratic, original films. I’m glad to have “30 for 30” back as an ongoing thing, and my DVR is all set.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org