Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Only Studio Show That Matters

This is a love letter, and I don't generally write them, but some things just deserve them. The NBA on TNT's studio show, Inside The NBA, is one of the best things on television, and one of the reasons why the NBA playoff season is one of the best things in sports.

The idea that I like this show, and nothing else that is even remotely like this, is telling. And lo, has every other network that televises the NBA tried like hell to recreate it. It's way past awful when you see Cheryl Miller on, but Jon Barry and Greg Anthony and Mark Jackson (lo, especially Mark Jackson) and Michael Wilbon and everyone else, really, that's been hired by the World Wide Lemur just misses the formula for the world. Only TNT moves seamlessly from reasonable (though not quite expert, and never, of course, statistical) analysis to clowntime with ease, not to mention a nearly complete absence of obnoxiousness.

It starts, of course, with the host. Ernie Johnson is the straight man who doesn't take his role lying down, the painfully white man in the collection of men far more famous than himself, the hip school teacher that lets his prize pupils go off, but never too long. He's essential. Chris Webber is basically second-generation Barkley, and he's really growing into the first true 4th Beatle of this group. But the guts of this is Kenn Smith and Charles Barkley.

The Jet is more cerebral, less likely to say something crazy for the sake of a big sounding opinion. His telestrator-esque work is good, but it's not taken as Gospel, especially when the rest of the crew gets to take some air out of his tires over the oversized set that TNT bought for this season. And his relationship with the Chuckster is just the bomb; deferring, needling, dancing in and out of set-ups, goading his man along to heights of brilliance and insanity. The simple fact is that Charles rarely had this good of a point guard during his playing career; it's nice to see him with one in the post-game.

And then there's Chuck. Unlike other men who blow hard opinions, there is no artifice here; you never get the sense that TNT is in his ear, telling him that he's got to argue something he doesn't believe in to drive an on-air discussion. The next person that gets Chuck to say anything that he doesn't want to say will be the first, and the fact that he does this job only for the love of it (he certainly doesn't need the cash or the hours away from, well, casinos and other less useful places) means that he's utterly fearless in saying what he really thinks about, well, everything. Unlike every other analyst on television, Charles Barkley could be out of there at any moment, either through his own mercurial nature or from saying (or doing) something that a network just can't sign off on.

So there's an electricity around this show, and always has been, that makes you afraid to turn it off. They sell the bad comedy so well that you forget it's bad. They tell you things that you didn't know about the game. They question the need to show highlights of the game you just watched, or to replay those highlights ad nauseaum. They don't overreact to single games; they freely mock players who get wiped out on defense. They are always fun, rarely if ever boring or obvious, and don't make me feel stupid for watching the game, or this show.

And all of this seems easy, or obvious, or less than impossible to pull off... and yet the show is unique. If you haven't been watching it, but have been watching the NBA, you're missing a lot. But then again, if you watch the NBA and haven't been watching this, I'm not sure I believe you.

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