Judge Brendan Babish knows what evil lurks in the heart of men...oh wait, that's a different Shadow.
Our review of The White Shadow: Season One, published December 14th, 2005, is also available.
Jim Willis: You had it easy sonny boy. You'll never know what it's like have to sit in the back of the bus and then give up your seat to a white man or pee in your pants because you can't find a bathroom that'll take you…Now I know a racist when I see one. And I'm looking at one right now.
Yep, that's right, those lovable scamps from Carver High are back for another season of hard-nosed basketball (with a heart) on The White Shadow: The Complete Second Season.
Facts of the Case
Premiering in 1978, The White Shadow was an attempt to toughen up the teen drama genre by enjoining Ken Reeves (Ken Howard), a no-nonsense white basketball coach, with an inner-city team of jive-talkin' underachievers. The teammates are tested on and off the court by a series of youthful indiscretions that, on the unforgiving mean streets of Los Angeles, are often matters of life and death. The White Shadow attempts to portray these hot-button issues—drug use, sports betting, and sexually transmitted diseases—which a gritty authenticity that had previously been absent from broadcast television.
The second season of The White Shadow contains 24 episodes spread out over four double-sided DVDs. These episodes aired between fall 1979 and summer 1980. They include:
• "On the Line"
Strangely enough, the second season finds every cast member from the first season returning (apparently there were no seniors on the basketball team when Coach Reeves took over). While the cast has a fair amount of chemistry, a new season provided an opportunity to dump the least interesting characters, namely the dopey Gomez (Ira Augustain) and nebbish Goldstein (Ken Michelman). While obvious care was taken to create vibrant, three-dimensional characters, these two are about as interesting as an extra in Saved by the Bell. In a show striving for authenticity, these two are major handicaps.
The constant struggle with The White Shadow, in both season one and two, is finding a balance between hard-hitting realism and rose-colored pathos. Most episodes of The White Shadow follow a clear template: a student gets in deep trouble, perhaps by sleeping with a teacher, dabbling with drugs, or taking money from a bookie. Then, no matter how dire the situation appears, somehow, usually with the intervention of the kindly Coach Reeves, all is resolved without any lingering trauma or ill will. The problem with this, as quickly evidenced in season one, is that the pattern is so quickly recognized that the stories become predictable and lose their intended drama. Thankfully, in season two, there are sporadic deviations from the template that help elevate the show slightly.
It is the episodes that deviate which are the strongest in the set. In the episode "Sudden Death" Coach Reeves convinces overprotective parents to allow their son to play on the basketball team. Shortly thereafter, the overactive student drops dead on the court during practice. Only long-term viewers of The White Shadow could understand what a sea change this was for the series. I kept thinking Coach Reeves would somehow manage to bring the student back to life, whether by resuscitation or electric paddles or voodoo. Still, the student's death allowed the show to explore drama that was otherwise unavailable in its previous, well-established parameters. When Coach Reeves attends the young man's funeral, I was certain there would be a brief, heartfelt reconciliation between Reeves and the boys parents, which would allow a clean segue into next week's high jinks. Instead, the young man's mother approaches Reeves and tells him, "I hope very much this burdens you for the rest of your life." This is heavy stuff for any show, but especially so for The White Shadow.
Other highlights from season two include: "Me?" an episode in which Thorpe (Kevin Hooks) infects Coolidge's (Byron Stewart) girlfriend with an STD, who then goes on to infect Coolidge; "Needle," in which Hayward (Thomas Carter) attempts to take vigilante justice on the dealer who sold a lethal dose of heroin to his cousin; and "The Death of Me Yet," in which the team qualifies for the city tournament, but then, in a random act of violence, loses one of its star players. Though the show is not nearly as adept at handling the death of a main character as more mature contemporary dramas (Six Feet Under, The Shield), "The Death of Me Yet" is a major upgrade in dramatic heft for The White Shadow. At times the episode's liberal uses of pathos invoke comparisons to after school specials, yet I still felt a mighty lump in my throat when Coach Reeves embraced the young brother of his slain player.
Still, despite these periodic successes, the show is too often burdened by its slightly juvenile nature. This includes countless bad jokes, awkward sing-alongs in the shower, and a hokey, horn heavy soundtrack. And, like in Season One, too many of the episodes attempt to tackle serious issues but only end up offering contrived, optimistic resolutions. This is best exemplified in the episode "Albert Hodges," when the titular Hodges joins the team and soon accuses Coach Reeves of racism. At the end of the episode Hodges is merely transferred out of Carver High to a fancy private school in Boston, thereby avoiding the inevitable confrontation. This is a dramatic cop-out that a contemporary audience, raised on far more refined television, would never abide. Ultimately, the show, which seems to have been created for a young crowd, has little to offer teenagers of the 21st century. Instead it can probably only be truly appreciated for its nostalgic value among those who watched its original broadcasts over 25 years ago.
While the picture and sound on these DVDs are adequate, they are probably the best one could have expected, considering 24 episodes were squeezed onto four discs, and the source material was created for television in the '70s. For such an old series, Fox has done a commendable job putting together extras for this set. There is commentary on three of the episodes. The highlight is on the episode "Globetrotters," where four cast members recount their experiences working on the show. In addition there is a moving featurette to Bruce Paltrow, the show's creator. Lastly, there is a preview of "A Series of Memories," a documentary on the making of the series to be included on the season three DVD release. Though many fans seem to wish season three never existed, the inclusion of this documentary may be enough to drive some to purchase the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One minor flaw (or major, depending on your level of fandom) with this DVD set is its cover art. The White Shadow ran for three seasons, and this DVD box bears a cover featuring the cast from the Third Season. While the cast remained virtually unchanged from season one to two, the third season's cast incorporated a slew of new characters. This bungle is not helped by the fact that most fans of the show regard the Third Season as highly inferior to the rest of the series. Perhaps Fox will make up for this boner by featuring the cast of season two on season three's cover.
This is a DVD set for those who fondly remember watching the show when it was originally broadcast. If you were raised on the more legitimately hard-hitting television of the late '80s or '90s The White Shadow's is going to come off a little kitschy.
The show's got its heart in the right place, but it just won't resonate with a generation weaned on Grand Theft Auto. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Selected Episode Commentaries
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