Despite a paralyzing fear of sports shows with dollar signs in the title, Judge Brendan Babish fearlessly tackles Footballers Wive$.
Jason Turner: "I hope your freakoid baby dies, Kyle!"
In 2002, Footballers Wives premiered on Britain's ITV. The show's creators, Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, had created the successful women's prison drama Bad Girls for the same channel three years earlier. That show was widely praised for the dignity with which it portrayed the lives of women behind bars. Would Chadwick and McManus's next show likewise dignify the lives of luminaries such as Posh Spice?
Facts of the Case
Footballers Wives is a drama series revolving around women married to members of the fictional London-based soccer team Earls Park. The three women vary greatly in moral fortitude, but each seems to have married a footballer with comparable ethics to their own.
Donna Walmsey (Katherine Managhan) is the down to earth wife of Earls Park striker Ian (Nathan Constance). She spends the first half of the second season searching for her abducted baby daughter. Despite an ongoing affair with one of Ian's teammates, Donna still comes off as one of the series' most morally centered characters. Accordingly, she is granted the least screen time of the three wives.
Chardonnay Lane-Pascoe (Susie Amy, a dead-ringer for pre-surgery Posh Spice) is a model and talk show host who is married to Earls Park's resident heartthrob Kyle (Gary Lucy). In the first season Kyle's mother, Jackie (Gillian Taylforth) gave birth to a baby boy and refused to tell him or Chardonnay who the father was. In the second season Chardonnay and Kyle decide to adopt the child and publicly announce that it is their own. But when the boy's father, who is an Earls Park teammate of Kyle, discovers the child is his he pressures Jackie to take it back so they can raise him together.
Tanya Turner (Zoe Lucker) is the mother hen of the footballers' wives. She is the loudest. She is the sexiest. And she is married to Earls Park's team captain, the brutish Jason. Jason is dim, violent, and a serial cheater, yet it is still hard to feel sorry for Tanya. In the first ever episode of Footballers Wives she savagely attacked the owner of Earls Park and put him into a coma (she did this because he had her husband benched). Later she would conspire with a nurse to have his breathing tube removed. In the second season her exploits include getting arrested for possession of cocaine and bedding a seventeen-year-old teammate of her husband.
In case you were still wondering, Footballers Wives is not likely to cause anyone to examine any negative impressions they currently have regarding Posh Spice.
To be honest, I was rather apprehensive about Footballers Wives. Not because I hadn't seen the first season, but because on the DVD case the show's title is spelled Footballers Wive$. The last sports show that contained a dollar sign in its title was HBO's atrocious "comedy" Arli$$. Seeing the dollar sign in Footballers Wives produced the Pavlovian response of revulsion and anger in me. But thankfully, after only the first episode, my fears were mollified. Other than sports, and unadvisable use of punctuation, Footballers Wives has little in common with Arli$$. In fact, after watching the second season, the obvious American comparison is the mega-hit Desperate Housewives.
If Family Feud ever surveyed 100 Americans with the question: "What one word best describes Desperate Housewives?" their top responses would probably be: campy, tawdry, trashy and over-the-top (the hyphens make it count as one word). A survey in Britain regarding Footballers Wives would probably receive the same answers. Yet Footballers Wives has one distinct advantage over its American counterpart: freedom. Public broadcasting rules in Britain do not prohibit swearing, nudity or drug use. Like much of America's cable programming, Footballer's Wives takes full advantage of its freer restrictions.
That is not to say that the show is pornographic or obscene. It's just that when a program's mien is sex and drugs and violence censorship can be a great liability. When Jason and Tanya are trying to conceive, a bit of nudity is perfectly justified. After Donna discovers that her baby boy has been stolen she is allowed to curse a blue streak. During a boring party Tanya is free to do a line in the bathroom. All of this just slightly bolsters the credibility of storylines that are entertaining but consistently dancing on the brink of kitsch.
In addition to the requisite sex, violence, etc. there are storylines involving bisexuality, transgender issues, self-mutilation and extortion (actually, that storyline was a little weak). Of course the inundation of illicit behavior is not a magic formula for creating great drama. So this all begs the question: what is it about Footballers Wives that makes it so much more appealing than your average daily soap opera?
Perhaps most importantly, it keeps base sentimentalism to a minimum. Whenever there is a marital infidelity there is no crying or fainting. There is only one acceptable response: revenge. While this occasionally involves a physical attack or an affair with a teammate, the show is always creative in its means and methods. The few occasions the show does veer into strait melodrama, such as Donna and Ian's teary reconciliation, are far less effective. Thankfully the show's producers seem to be aware of this and keep the pathos to a minimum. As soon as Donna and Ian find happiness together they are written out of the show. They aren't missed.
Another strength of Footballers Wives is the acting. In a show as tawdry as this, bad acting could sink into the drama to the campy depths of Showgirls or Neil Diamond's The Jazz Singer. However, it is not the men—the footballers—who excel. In particular, David Schultzman, who plays Salvatore, the stoic Italian striker, must have relatives who are heavy investors in the show. The best acting among the male cast is by Christian Solimeno, who plays Earls Park captain Jason Turner. But even his performance is good only in the same way as Patrick Swayze as James Dalton, Head Bouncer in Road House. Like Dalton, Turner is violent and articulate, in a simple-minded, brutish sort of way. Like Swayze, Solimeno brings a dim-witted simian cool to his role.
The acting accolades in this show clearly belong to the women. Alison Newman, as a venomous agent, and Gillian Taylforth, as a gobsmacked middle-aged mom, both excel. However, Zoe Lucker as Jason's wife Tanya, is the clear emerging talent. Lucker, who was on the verge of abandoning her fledgling acting career before being cast in Footballers Wives, is the emotional and spiritual epicenter of the cast. Her tussles with Jason are among the strongest scenes in the series. Her affair with his 17-year-old teammate is the most titillating. Even when her storylines are relatively mundane, such as her ongoing feud with the Earls Park owner, Lucker, with her twitchy brown eyes and two-inch white fingernails, manages to captivate. Don't be surprised if she is able to parlay a role in a British television series to actual Hollywood stardom.
While the video and sound on the DVD are both satisfactory for a British television series, the heads of Capital Entertainment should seriously examine what they consider to be worthwhile "extras." On the back of the DVD case they write: "The two-disc set also includes: Footballers Wives slang dictionary and photo gallery!" I submit to you that that exclamation mark is totally out of line. The slang dictionary is mildly useful, but would have been effective if it were made into an insert, a la the DVD set of the British The Office. And that photo gallery is about as interesting as vacation photos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unlike most American (and British) shows, the regular cast of Footballers Wives changes greatly from season to season. If you visit the show's official Web site (www.footballerswives.tv) you will find that only a single featured cast member from the second season is featured in the fourth season. Though the influx of new characters surely helps create fresh storylines, jettisoning nearly an entire cast is still pretty daring for a successful TV series. It is also a little unnerving for the audience. While I am curious to see how these new seasons stack up (and early word is that the third season is even better than the second), I can't suppress a twinge of sadness for the demise of Footballers Wives cast of '03.
Despite a sports backdrop, Footballers Wives is a show created by women and made primarily for a female audience (notice the almost complete lack of on-the-pitch action). However, if you ladies are looking for a show you'll enjoy and won't send your fella running in the opposite direction (e.g. Gilmore Girls) give Footballers Wives a shot.
Not guilty. But please, no more photo galleries. I mean really, what's the point?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Capital Entertainment
• Footballers Wives Slang Dictionary
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