On its surface, the HBO documentary series Hard Knocks, about the New York Jets' training camp, resembles another HBO series, The Sopranos. Both star the stout patriarch of a New Jersey "family" preoccupied with food, intimidation and florid profanity. Oh, the profanity.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan curses nine times in an 80-second speech in the opening moments of the season premiere of Hard Knocks. When Ryan tells his cohorts, "We will not be bullied by anybody!"—while dining alfresco beneath a sidewalk café umbrella—one might forget that he's just a coach in the AFC East; less Tony Soprano than Tony Sparano.
But the Ryan portrayed on Hard Knocks quickly emerges as someone far less menacing. He's a classic sitcom archetype: put upon by his in-laws (he can't imagine a worse vacation than "cruising the Baltic" with them), mock-exasperated by his wife's spending ("You can go shopping, but keep it down") and bedeviled by a Homeric appetite for junk food. (He laughs when reading Internet speculation that the Jets will be sponsored by Krispy Kreme.) Ryan even has a wacky neighbor—Jets legend Joe Namath, who wears his shorts hiked high, like Urkel, and his long hair in bangs, like Gilligan.
In its six seasons on HBO, Hard Knocks has achieved something remarkable. It has made the NFL preseason, once a synonym for tedium, every bit as compelling as the regular season. Hard Knocks seems to have done for the self-serious NFL what the witch did for Rapunzel: persuaded it, somehow, to let its hair down. The result is an image of charming roguishness unimaginable a few years ago.
In Hard Knocks, produced by NFL Films, the Jets aren't showing anything they don't want the public to see. The novelist Martin Amis said of sports journalism, "All you get when you go behind the scenes is another scene." But what we are allowed to see is often frank enough that it's hard to watch, as when Ryan says of rookie offensive tackle Aaron Kia, "Seventy-six is awful. Oh, my God, is he bad."
Hard Knocks gets its tension principally from players like Kia trying to make the cut. The voyeuristic scenes in which hopeful young men have their dreams stubbed out by team administrators whose primary concern is repossessing the playbook are excruciating. Watching them feels almost immoral, like screening storm-chaser video of tornadoes.
Because it's impossible to look away, the players sometimes physically force us to avert our gaze. After his inevitable release, Aaron Kia closes his dorm-room door on the camera and, it's hard not to infer, on his brief NFL career.
In this way, Hard Knocks has done more to humanize NFL players than 40 years of United Way commercials. Last year the Bengals were featured. Thus, when Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry died in December, viewers felt as if they knew him.
As good as NFL Films is at making players human, it's even better at making players superhuman. No Hollywood studio has made movies that are more grand or gorgeous. Every meticulous shot of Hard Knocks is a vision: every slow-motion spiral, every shaved head steaming like a Manhattan manhole cover. The audio is also a symphony—of squeaks (a man twisting balloon animals for Jets fans) and beeps (equipment trucks backing onto a practice field) and chirrs. (NFL Films takes particular joy in the sonic wonders of stadium sprinkler systems.)
Last week's season premiere was watched by 870,000 people (37% more than 2009's), though anyone without cast-iron ears probably tuned out in the first six minutes, when Ryan began his carpet f-bombing. Ryan's own mother, Doris, was upset enough that she asked him to desist, a request he claims he will honor.