THREE YEARS ago ESPN aired a series of commercials about the tiny Upper Peninsula logging town of Watersmeet, Mich., and its obsession with its high school basketball team, the Nimrods. (Think Fargo meets Hoosiers.) After each vignette ESPN asked, "Without sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?" It was heady stuff for 60 seconds of TV, but the ads merely hinted at the townspeople's devotion to their team. Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary on the Sundance Channel (Mondays, 9 p.m.), tells the rest of the story.
Nimrod Nation is about high school sports, community and how one affects the other—hardly unexplored territory. On NBC, for example, Friday Night Lights depicts a tiny Texas town obsessed with high school football. Like FNL, Nimrod Nation features an antsy cheerleader ("I want to be in a half-decent place; I want to go to Wisconsin," she says), an overly ardent alum and a hotheaded player, the team's center, who's a chick magnet. In one episode of Nimrod a parent passionately implores the coach--athletic director to fund a bowling team for those few non-basketball-crazed students. Analmost identical scene involving girls' soccer unfolded four weeks ago on FNL.
Yet when cameras venture inside the Nimrods' locker room, they find nothing like the memorable "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" message often heard of FNL. Instead director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who also made the ESPN ads, shows coach George Peterson telling his players to close their eyes and then saying, "Think about the game ... and think we lost. Now open your eyes. How do you feel Like poo. But we have the opportunity not to feel like poo. The ball is in your hands." In another scene, after a loss, Peterson is shown sobbing in a bathroom stall.
Nimrod Nation is filled with raw, authentic moments like these, from players and coaches who talk in ways actors rarely articulate, with lots of ums and uhs and awkward, gut-wrenching silences. And some seemingly stereotypical characters turn out to be surprisingly complex. The cheerleader is dating a Native American player, which poses problems in the community. The overly loyal alum is not only living vicariously through the Nimrods but also pushing his kids to do the same. The center, meanwhile, is interested in more than just girls; he's also the student council president.
The show succeeds thanks to Morgen's light touch. He wisely decided against using a narrator, and his best shots are the ones that linger on a silent school hallway or a snowy Watersmeet landscape. Morgen doesn't spoon-feed morality tales; he pauses to let viewers extract their own, probably more ambiguous meaning about what they've just witnessed in Nimrod Nation.