Netflix smartly aims just to the side of the usual sporting profile subjects in The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules for Life, but you can’t help but wish there was a bit more to chew on.
LeBron James is getting around a bit lately as far as executive producer credits go. Less than a week after Disney+’s Becoming, his name is also attached to Netflix’s new sports-profile limited series The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules for Life, which feels in many ways like a show-offy response to a concept introduced in Apple TV+’s Greatness Code. Here, five half-hour-ish episodes hone in not on the players but the coaches who led them to success, but the concept still feels as if it should be fattened up.
The Playbook excels in the same area Becoming did, too – diversity of its subjects, which include Doc Rivers, Jose Mourinho, Jill Ellis, Patrick Mouratoglou, and Dawn Staley. Some of those names – okay, probably not Rivers and Mourinho – might not be familiar to you, which is half the point. A coach’s job, after all, isn’t to hog the limelight, but to share tactics, philosophies, and approaches that ensure someone else gets the limelight instead. In that sense, it’s very smart for Netflix to highlight these personalities; they don’t just lend a new perspective on the success of famous athletes, but on success in general, and the systems that have been built to nurture it.
Coaching success, as we see though, almost always comes after personal success, so the determined mindset of a winner is very much a thematic throughline of the limited series – succinctly demonstrated by Doc Rivers writing “professional basketball player” as his career goal again and again, despite being told to think more realistically. But the transition from player to coach helps to give a window into the behind-the-scenes politicking that defines professional sports and from which the players themselves are typically divorced – the controversy around Donald Sterling’s racism and the Los Angeles Clippers’ reaction to it, for example, works better from the perspective of Rivers than it would any past or present player.
Rivers is such a smart choice for a profile in The Playbook that he’s emblematic of the show’s entire approach, which isn’t just to analyze sports but the cultural context that sports exist within. Getting outspoken subjects for that task is crucial since even issues as clear-cut as “racism is bad” have somehow become bipartisan and die-hard sports fans are typically aggressively resistant to the inclusion of politics in their favourite pastime. This series is a reminder that almost nothing, and certainly not sports, can be divorced from politics.
This is why you can’t help but wish there was more to it. 30-minute episodes leave little room for real focus, and instead, each plays out like a cliff’s notes version of a coach’s philosophy and earned wisdom, lacking any real insight beyond the superficial. It’s quotable, sure, and jam-packed with intriguing international figures plucked from different countries and disciplines, but it’s so streamlined and surface-level that is passes by too quickly and with too little fuss. If Netflix expands this format, which they should, then I’d like to see 40-minute or hour-long episodes, and more of them. I suppose that, though, is the sign of a good show.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.