Just one question, though: Is a deep dive into Tom Brady’s career really going to inspire anywhere near the same excitement as Michael Jordan’s recent star turn?
Apparently the network that brought us 10 episodes of “The Last Dance” to so much acclaim — and boffo ratings — is more than happy to find out. On Thursday, ESPN released a trailer for “Man in the Arena,” a series slated for 2021 that will have nine episodes, one for each of Brady’s appearances in the Super Bowl with the Patriots.
“Through the series, we’re defining the key moments and challenges that were seemingly insurmountable, but through hard work and perseverance, became career-defining triumphs, in both victory and defeat,” Brady said in a statement Thursday (via ESPN).
The series is being co-produced by ESPN, Religion of Sports and Brady’s own production company, according to Deadline, which broke the news. Deadline reported that in addition to the Super Bowl trips, “Man in the Arena” will feature “smaller, seemingly insignificant instances that became pivotal events and paved the path of the future Hall of Famer’s journey, which takes a new chapter after his move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”
Oh, that’s right — Brady’s incredible Patriots career may be over, but he is still playing. So that’s a pretty major difference with “The Last Dance.”
One of the biggest things the Jordan series had going for it was that it provided both a nostalgia trip for some NBA fans and an enthralling history lesson for younger viewers.
Granted, the 42-year-old Brady has been playing for so long that his first three Super Bowl runs feel like a million years ago and some younger viewers will be seeing some of that stuff for the first time. Still, there’s no chance “Man in the Arena” can have the same sort of historical scope as “The Last Dance.”
A related point is that a heck of a lot of football fans are suffering from Patriots fatigue and want nothing more than to see that team exit the stage for a while. Even if the upcoming season turns out to be a poor one for New England, one year of distance from its dynasty is hardly the same as 22 years.
Take it from a fervent Knicks fan — and thus Jordan hater — during the 1990s: “The Last Dance” is the last thing I would have wanted to sit through in, say, 2000. Along those lines, it seems fair to think that supporters of a few embittered ban bases might need 20 or so years to get over two decades of Patriots dominance.
One year of distance will, however, make for a crucial difference in the climate in which “Man in the Arena” will be received. Sports could be back in something resembling full swing in 2021 (please?), whereas the Jordan series was moved up to air during an otherwise largely sports-free period, all but ensuring an enormous audience.
Another selling point of “The Last Dance” was a trove of behind-the-scenes footage that had never aired before. If “Man in the Arena” showed us some of the footage the Patriots themselves are, ahem, accused of shooting, that would be one thing, but there’s little reason to think that Bill Belichick provided much access of any kind.
Speaking of the Patriots’ head coach/evil genius, that brings us to the contrast in personality between Brady and Jordan. Belichick has very much been the “bad cop” for his team, but if there was one overarching theme to “The Last Dance,” it was that Jordan more than played that role with the Bulls, while Jackson did his Zen master thing.
In fact, pettiness and outright bad blood is sprinkled liberally throughout the Jordan series, leaving even some of his former teammates fuming at their treatment. And that’s before we get to on-court rivals such as Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton, to whom Jordan showed as much ruthless disdain in “The Last Dance” as he did when they were playing.
Are we going to get anything like that from Brady? Sure, he might fire off some digs at the Manning family and, perhaps, at some of the NFL executives who passed on him in the 2000 draft, but it’s hard to imagine that being anything but good-natured ribbing.
And with Brady still playing, how many waves is he really going to be willing to make?
It’s more likely that “Man in the Arena” will cast itself as essentially inspirational, giving viewers nine chances to take to heart Brady’s lessons of overcoming the odds. There is value in such an undertaking, to be sure, but it just doesn’t sound as fun as the endless score-settling in “The Last Dance,” not to mention all of the clips of Jordan’s aerial assaults on rims and opponents alike.
With any luck, “Man in the Arena” will at least give us a comprehensive look at Brady’s history of getting left hanging on high-fives. Okay, that’s almost certainly not going to happen, but the series could benefit from taking its main character a little less seriously than “The Last Dance” did with Jordan.
Failing that, we’re left to hope Brady actually says something interesting. As ESPN content chief Connor Schell declared, “To have personal firsthand accounts and an athlete at Tom’s level who doesn’t often give firsthand accounts can add up to a remarkable series.”
Why yes, it can. But will it? Stay tuned.