Fox // 1978 // 810 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // December 14th, 2005
Bill Donahue: Coaching at a ghetto high school? What kind of a job is
Ken Reeves: Steady.
In 1978, Bruce Paltrow created The White Shadow, a hard-hitting comedy/drama about an inner-city high school basketball team and its unyielding, fish-out-of-water white coach. The show, which premiered in 1978, was lauded for portraying the lives of urban youth with more accuracy and respect than any previous television program. Twenty-seven years after its creation one has to wonder if the White Shadow remains relevant to modern audiences.
Ken Reeves (Ken Howard, Crossing Jordan) is a journeyman NBA player who suffers a career-ending knee injury while driving hard towards the hoop. Against his family's advice, he accepts an offer to coach the basketball team at Carver High, a predominantly black school in urban Los Angeles. Initially, the team is wary of this tough-talking white guy, and openly defies him on and off the court. Coach Reeves responds to their insubordination with anger and violence at first, but soon learns to empathize and reason with his players. He inserts himself into their lives, helping them navigate through the temptations and traps of adolescence. As trust and affection develops, Coach Reeves learns that beneath the gruff exterior of every young ne'er-do-well lies a heart, as well as a jump shot, of gold. His players learn how to trust whitey.
The first season of The White Shadow contains 15 episodes spread out over four double-sided DVDs. Each episode addresses a different issue, some of which (alcoholism, miscegenation, homosexuality) are surprisingly hard hitting considering the decade this show was produced. However, as encouraging as it is to see The White Shadow delve into formidable subjects like teen pregnancy and gang violence, the show's lack of serious consequences and reliance on simple solutions often steers it dangerously close to "very special episode" territory. Thankfully, Paltrow (the late father of Gwyneth Paltrow) injected enough humor and personality to offset the ample amounts of moralizing and bathos. Perfectly embodying this mix of drama and comedy is Ken Howard's spectacular performance as Coach Reeves.
Ken Howard is so good in The White Shadow, it's hard to understand why he never went on to major stardom (although when one sees how much he's aged in the past 27 years it becomes a little clearer). Howard plays Coach Reeves as a mixture between Frank Sinatra and Ryan O'Neal, part tough-talking wise guy, part bleeding-heart sentimentalist. Coach Reeves chides negligent parents; he lectures pregnant girlfriends; he confronts scheming agents. But he does it all because he cares so damn much for his kids. Lesser actors would have come off as comically ineffectual or abrasive and unlikable, but Howard nails the performance. It helps tremendously that he's 6'6" and, unlike other members of the cast, can actually play basketball.
The performance of team is far more uneven. Some, such as plucky point guard Morris Thorpe (Kevin Hooks), and the stoic small forward James Haywood (Thomas Carter), are interesting, believable characters. Others, such as mush-mouthed center Warren Coolidge (Byron Stewart) and wide-eyed back-up Ricky Gomez (Ira Augustain) are such poor actors that one would think they were professional athletes who were hired for their ball handling skills. But this theory is quickly squashed as soon as one sees the Carver High team in action.
As a whole, the basketball games are about as authentic as those in Teen Wolf, before Scott Howard turned into a lycanthrope (at least the stunt double in wolf makeup knew how to ball). To be fair, it isn't just Coolidge and Gomez who struggle to drive in for an uncontested lay-up. It seems as if the entire cast was hired without any consideration given to basketball experience. And as awkward as much of the cast looks when they score, they look even worse when the script calls for them to miss a shot. No one at Carver seems capable of throwing up a brick. Instead, their missed shots nearly always go over the backboard or miss the rim entirely. While it is amusing to watch these supposed varsity basketball players using both hands to heave up their jump shots, it ultimately diminishes the drama of the games. That said, as Season One progresses, the actors' ball handling skills improve tremendously.
Thankfully, The White Shadow does enough things right to overcome occasional overwrought drama and amateurish acting. Its biggest strength is that, for a drama from the '70s, this show actually tackles some pretty daring issues. In one of the series' best episodes Peter Horton (Side Out) guest stars as a new team member who transfers to Carver High to escape the rumors at his old school that he's a homosexual. Although much of the resulting drama bares the sheen of an after school special, there is also an edge to this story, and the series as a whole, that keeps it from becoming farcical. In another episode, on corporal punishment, a student sucker punches Coach Reeves. Thankfully, The White Shadow is edgy enough that it unapologetically allows Coach Reeves to punch the kid back.
However, there are a lot of problems that prevent the show from achieving greatness. The most prominent is that each episode is self-contained. After watching the first few episodes it becomes clear that all of the student's problems, no matter how large or complicated, will be resolved within the 45-minute time frame. One of the early episodes is entirely dedicated to Jackson's (Erik Kilpatrick) drinking problem. After Coach Reeves organizes an intervention, and Jackson breaks down in shameful crying, the affliction is never mentioned in subsequent episodes. One assumes Jackson has stopped drinking, but we never see the temptation that alcoholics struggle with for the rest of their life. Even when Reese (Nathan Cook) accidentally impregnates his cheerleader girlfriend, Coach Reeves somehow manages to solve his "problem" before the end credits roll (if you haven't gotten the idea yet, this is one impressive coach).
There are also storylines that are introduced but never developed. In nearly every other episode an attractive woman expresses romantic interest in Coach Reeves. He seems open to a relationship; he goes on dates, invites women into his apartment, and makes bold, yet endearing, sexual overtures. None of these women ever stick around for a second episode. There is also an unsettling sexual tension between Coach Reeves and Sylvia (Sybil Buchanan), the uptight vice-principal who plays the foil to the coach's progressive attitude towards discipline. This flirtation never goes anywhere, but it does make me a little apprehensive about watching Season Two.
Then there are the scenes that go on far too long. Though the writing on The White Shadow is usually engaging and intelligent, in most episodes there are a few scenes that run far longer than necessary. Connoisseurs of contemporary quick-cutting shows like Alias and The Shield are going to find their attention wavering during these scenes that sometime run on for over five minutes. Especially perplexing is the inclusion of impromptu do-wop sessions in the showers (the team sings "Duke of Earl" and "My Girl" while endlessly lathering themselves) that bring the plot to a screeching halt. Thankfully, after the first half-dozen episodes the writing tightens up significantly.
Despite these problems, there is something undeniably appealing about The White Shadow. Its unironic portrayal of youthful angst often leads the show dangerously close to camp, but strong performances (particularly Ken Howard's) and smart writing (the show employed Steven Bochco, creator of NYPD Blue and Joshua Brand, creator of Northern Exposure) make it a joy to watch.
The colors on the DVD are a little grainy and fuzzy, but that's to be expected from a TV show from the '70s. The extras are a little skimpy, with two single episode commentary tracks and a 10-minute featurette entitled "More Than Basketball." The commentary tracks, one with directors Jackie Cooper and Mark Tinker, the other with Ken Howard and Timothy Van Patten (who plays Salami) are both fun and informative. The featurette doesn't provide much information that can't be heard in the commentary tracks, but it is interesting to see how much Howard and Van Patten have aged over the past quarter century.
Despite how dated much of the production and drama appears, one shouldn't forget how revolutionary The White Shadow was when it first aired. Before The White Shadow, blacks were almost exclusively portrayed in television as thieves, pimps or shoe shiners. In this show, the black students are intelligent and ambitious young men. The White Shadow doesn't pander to its audience by portraying them as young angels victimized by society. They're flawed characters, but when treated with respect and compassion they nearly always respond in kind.
The White Shadow is going to be judged very differently by people who watched it during its initial run in the late '70s, and those who are just being introduced to it. This is because, for better or worse, the show is as dated as those tight, hip-hugging basketball shorts worn by Carver High. From the saxophone and synthesizer soundtrack to the pat resolutions at the end of every episode, The White Shadow embodies what is so often mocked about dramatic television from the '70s and '80s. For some this show will seem unforgivably mawkish, but most people who are old enough to remember watching The White Shadow during its initial run will find it to be a pleasantly nostalgic return back to (seemingly) simpler times.
The White Shadow's not guilty, man. Ya dig?
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 810 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Select Episode Commentary
* "More Than Basketball" Featurette