Sports metaphors are a fact of life, and so are stories about underdogs. The latest sports story about an underdog team and its gruff coach, “Big Shot,” does not get any points for originality, so much as productivity and speed. But while it’s easy to see what this new Disney+ series (available April 16) is up to, at least in its first three episodes screened for press, it’s the softer touch that catches you off guard.
Co-creator David E. Kelley gets to return to some of his “Boston Public” days with "Big Shot," but with teachers and students who have their edges sanded down. It's more about the interior work, especially for Coach Marvyn Korn, played by John Stamos. Korn was a revered NCAA basketball coach from the Bobby Knight school of toxic masculinity—he was known for throwing chairs and yelling at his players. In the past such aggro behavior might have read as powerful, but now it reads like a problem that this series is keen to deconstruct, with a cast comprised of girls and women who will inevitably teach him a thing or two. Parallel to that deconstruction, he’ll also build up a great new team out of the struggling players at Westbrook School for Girls, because Kelley and co-creators Brad Garrett and Dean Lorey know that this is proven to be one of the more pleasurable narrative arcs out there.
"Big Shot" owns its cliches, like when Korn has them practice by using invisible basketballs, and even if it wants to take on PC culture as a weak starting point. Take episode one, which starts with some eyeroll-inducing button-pushing, making an obvious clash between old and new school sensibilities, and toxic masculinity vs. PC culture. When Marvyn Korn first rolls into the gym, he fat shames player Destiny (Tiana Le), triggers Olive (Monique Green) by blowing loudly on a whistle, and in general makes a circus out of these generational tensions. “You’re used to being coddled, now get un-used to it,” he declares to them, starting a war that he quickly loses. He's soon given a shot of reality, in part from his assistant coach Holly (Jessalyn Gilsig), who also has some personal drama off the court, including a failed marriage (and yet that didn’t make her a crystallized jerk like Korn). She reminds him that he's coaching a team of "future CEOs," and knows that deep down he's scared.
But the series moves from that tension by episode one, charting a course in ways that Korn can embrace the meaningful sensitivity of his peers, while still being a strict and effective basketball coach. "Big Shot" is more about getting on the same page than it is in battling each other, and that focus on fostering those relationships, between coach and player, and later father and daughter, becomes a special comfort among the show's many familiar mechanics. And in side-stepping the PC battle, the quaint series shows that it doesn't need overt conflict to be charming.
It’s kind of funny that its biggest star, Stamos, is also the show’s weakest selling point. He doesn’t bring enough edge to such a cliche character that we learn has a history of aggression and equally severe issues with his estranged father. At the same point, his softer moments of bonding with his conflicted players, which the script seems to embrace with more convenience, make him feel even more mushy. Stamos doesn’t play the character like there’s a complex moral compass to him, instead he zig-zags from soft and tough-love moments that are often complemented with his constipated reaction shots (you won’t be able to unsee it). Korn is meant to be a man of power, even as he acquiesces to the more loving atmosphere of his workplace, and yet Stamos struggles to give him a certain depth for much of the three episodes.
But it’s hard to entirely dog on Stamos’ performance when its given such a nice emotional handling off the court. In some of the show’s sweeter scenes, he has video chats with his daughter Emma (Sophia Mitri Schloss), who is in a different time zone and is experiencing bullying because of her father’s reputation. They have an endearing chemistry that displays the many things he needs to work on; it's Emma’s questions who keep him in a straight line. “You were you?”, she always asks after one of his busy days. "Big Shot" wisely builds on this relationship for later episodes, and gives Schloss more screen-time with a later development that also puts Korn even more into father mode.
It’s not just Emma who gives some splashes of emotional color to the show, as the series concerns the tension with the people around him—his interactions with his fellow instructors remind us that he’s an awkward small fry during school hours. In the show’s first three episodes, “Big Shot” demonstrates how he can clash with the pointed, no-BS headmaster (played by Yvette Nicole Brown), or face opposition over practice and school time with Ms. Grint, a political science teacher with a British accent (to make it clear that she is high-class compared to Korn’s coach). In numerous ways, "Big Shot" has fun with how his power as a coach is part of an unreasonable, intense macho standard, even if his players come to see the point of his two-a-day practices. And to see him lose certain administration battles puts him in a compelling, vulnerable place, like when he is mandated to start counseling with George (Richard Robichaux).
The players on the Westbrook Sirens aren't entirely memorable on their own, given the series' touch-and-go character building, but "Big Shot" wisely gathers them by focusing them as starters who also hang out and complain about the latest Korn moment at their favorite gelato place. The one major student is star player Louise Gruzinsky (Nell Verlaque), whose father paid for the school’s gymnasium, and faces a great deal of pressure from that investment. There’s hints that Louise’s story will start to parallel the pressures from Korn’s history, referring to the brief moments when he talks about being wounded from when his father called him a “disappointment.” With credit to the show’s emotional work, it makes apparent just how devastating that can be, without making the stakes too obvious.
All of these sketched out characters keep "Big Shot" in motion, in spite of its recognizable contours. And it's not the basketball games, practices, or season advancements that give the show a jolt—they’re often the weirdest, sludgiest parts of the show, shot in slow motion with rote peppy tunes—but the way "Big Shot" goes from one small crisis to the next, without overstepping. At least in the first three episodes, it gains plenty of charisma out of watching people come together, and in showing the benefits in a leader embracing healthy inspiration while seeing what made him so volatile. “Big Shot” knows we’re more interested in seeing a fortified team than an attempt to reinvent the game, and it inspires you to also embrace its cliches without much cynicism.
Three episodes screened for review.