At the beginning of last year, I wrote a post about following new things as a fan.* In that vein, this entry is for a tv series that I’ve cherished for a while, just not nearly as long as the 21 years it’s run. HBO’s Real Sports has a nondescript name and unflashy aesthetic, but is consistently the best nonfiction tv show I watch. It’s probably the best tv show I watch full-stop, but comparing it to BoJack Horseman or, say, The Sopranos is farce. (It’s better than Ballers, genre distinctions be damned. I am certain that it is better than Ballers.)
For the hour a month it airs, Real Sports uses the ostensible occasion of sport to probe the social infrastructures that govern our lives, and finds either obfuscated failure or obscure triumph. The show is striking at least in part for how it more or less sophisticates the superficiality of sports in real time, every episode: the process of rigorous reporting begins with and quickly discards the brutish snap judgements that usually constitute sports reporting, but almost always concludes with a nuanced portrayal of the heightened sense of defeat and achievement—the hackneyed but true ends—for which we love sports in the first place.
I write about Real Sports now because its July episode (#232), a feature-length exposé on the International Olympic Committee, is ambitious and thorough and earnest in a way that dramatically exaggerates the virtues upon which the show rests each month—so it’s the best possible showcase of why people who don’t give a hoot about sports ought to consider watching regularly. In no arena is the hyperbolic pendulum of sports accomplishment more dramatic than it is in the Olympics, which seem to exist specifically to create these sorts of emotionally overblown athletic/geopolitical-ish scenarios. The mystique of The Games is predicated on the promise of heightened everything: scarcity (once every four years!), achievement (what’s more impressive than an Olympic gold medal?), global citizenship (the “Olympic movement”), and patriotism (so few athletes carrying the hopes and dreams of so many of the world’s peoples).
With several reporters working around the planet for one cohesive episode, Real Sports throws away the bullshit Olympic narrative for one that’s both subtler and more significant: one of war, corruption, political oppression, and greed. Some of the arguments aren’t fully fleshed out—it isn’t clear to me that the 2014 Sochi Olympics were a mechanism of war veiled as mere athletic spectacle, as the segment suggests—but in sum, the handful of Olympics segments are an ethical indictment the likes of which rarely appear on even nominally mainstream television. Particular segments, like the reporting on China’s human rights crackdowns before the 2008 Beijing Games and again before the IOC’s announcement of the 2022 Beijing (Winter) Games, are also spectacular in isolation.
Non-magisterial, regular-length episodes include some combination of tear-jerking human interest segments, profiles, and shorter versions of the investigative reporting that’s on display in the Olympics edition. It’s 60 Minutes for topics that are either arcane to sports fans and skeptics alike, or actual reporting on stories that only receive infantilizing hot take treatment in ESPN/FOX/League Network-land. May’s episode (#230) is a fine example of the form: the three segments address the rise in popularity of the AR15, golf commentator David Feherty’s lifelong struggle with depression while maintaining an ebullient tv persona, and an extracurricular program that teaches inner-city kids in Philadelphia to play polo and excel in their schoolwork.
Real Sports is the best blend of high-integrity telejournalism, pathos, and entertainment that I know of. ■
Almost exactly 19 months later, a brief epilogue to the original “On Following” post:
- Togetherness lasted two seasons on HBO. It’s now cancelled. All 16 half-hour episodes of the now-complete series are available on HBO Go and HBO Now. Prepare yourself for the satisfaction of watching impeccably made, funny portrayals of suburban banality.
- Phil Klay completed an arts fellowship at Princeton, and wrote a long essay on war for the Brookings Institute in May.
- Real Sports airs once a month for an hour on HBO. Its air schedule, including the availability of previous episodes on HBO’s streaming platforms, is available here. You can also poke around HBO Go or HBO Now, or read a synopsis of the July or May episodes.
- Ballers is currently in the middle of its second season, and The Sopranos ended years ago. Both are also available on the HBO group of platforms.
- BoJack Horseman recently released its third season, and is available on Netflix.
*Rereading it, it’s hard not to feel some sense of nostalgia for the person who wrote that, who’s become a person who’s anxious that he can’t write that kind of thing, or that well, anymore. But it’s also some testament to the elegance of writing as a form, which gave/gives a twentysomething the mechanism to transcribe some combination of his self-history, inclinations, and desire to be heard into an artifact that can go out into the world, stay there, and be around when he chooses to find it again. Bless it for that.
Thanks to Anna Peraino for editing a previous version of this post.