Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Today’s edition of Recurring Episodes will tackle ESPN’s 30th anniversary documentary film series, appropriately titled 30 for 30, with what is probably the most interesting and strangely compelling of its films (albeit a few days late, date-wise), “June 17, 1994.”
The Show: 30 for 30 is ESPN’s thirtieth anniversary film series, consisting of 30 films from 30 different directors, ranging in length from about an hour to about two, focusing on sports stories that occurred between 1979, the year ESPN launched, and 2009. Premiering in October of 2009, 30 for 30 was executive produced by columnist and “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons, one of ESPN’s biggest personalities of the past decade, with help from filmmaker Mike Tollin, who served as a consulting producer (and also directed one of the 30 installments, entitled “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”). While definitely a prestige project, the broad range of stories covered, and respected filmmakers involved, make 30 for 30 a very interesting proposition.
Why 30 for 30? The 2000s are the decade in which ESPN fully began to embody the nickname the network had given itself: The Worldwide Leader in Sports. Because of this, some of its programming quality and journalistic integrity has gone downhill—without competition, there’s nowhere to go but down. SportsCenter is not, and probably never will be, what it once was, a revolutionary program making the highlight the primary consumptive element of sports viewing, with a number of vibrant personalities to match the quick-cutting nature of the action (Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, Craig Kilborn, Robin Roberts, Charley Steiner and others were all stars of the show at one time, following in the footsteps of the man who’s likely fallen the farthest, ESPN lifer Chris Berman). Once in the 2000s, ESPN tried to become more like MTV, with quick-moving, bantery original programming sprinkled in amongst the live sporting events. Some of these shows, like Pardon the Interruption, were an unqualified success. Others, like Around the Horn, surely are not.
30 for 30 represents a definite push to re-establish ESPN’s journalistic integrity, all while securing the network’s WWL brand. They reached out not only to athletes (Steve Nash directed one entry) and ESPN personalities (Hannah Storm) but some of the most respected documentarians in the film world (Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, Albert Maysles, and Barbara Kopple all turned in very strong entries). The films are of varying lengths and styles, and tell stories big and small, some tackling major sports stories in a new way, others exposing tidbits the public at large, even the rabid ESPN fanbase, may have missed. Perhaps the most interesting, and most unique, among these, is “June 17,1994.”
The Episode: “June 17, 1994” originally aired almost sixteen years after its events, on June 16, 2010. It was directed by Brett Morgen, most well-known for his award-winning documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, about legendary motion picture mogul and womanizer Robert Evans. Primarily culled from archival footage, Picture was a new kind of documentary, using the piecing together of old clips together in a new way to create a seamless documentary narrative, almost like a song made up of samples. Morgen takes the same approach—no talking heads, no unnecessary commentary—to tackle one of the most memorable days in United States sports history, if not US history in general.
Even without the spontaneity of events that would occur throughout the day, the seventeenth day of June in the year 1994 would have been big in the world of sports. For New Yorkers, the hometown Rangers celebrated ending their historic Stanley Cup drought during the day, and the Knicks played the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals that evening. Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer (also an excellent and refreshing summer beverage) played his final round at the US Open ever. The World Cup of soccer began on US soil. Ken Griffey, Jr., then the next great hope in baseball, tied Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs hit before the end of June. All of these occurrences were broadcast, locally and nationally, covered intently, but it was what was talked about during those broadcasts, at first in quick news breaks and then, by the end of the day, replacing those broadcasts altogether, that made “June 17, 1994” a day to remember forever—OJ Simpson’s low-speed white Ford Bronco chase through Los Angeles, wanted for the murder of his wife and another man.
One could have simply recontextualized any number of broadcasts from that day and it would be compelling viewing—the low-speed chase through Los Angeles, with crowds beginning to form alongside highways and outside OJ’s Brentwood estate, is one of the strangest televised events in recent memory. What makes this film so interesting, though, is how it uses its footage, from local broadcasts, from network feeds, from ESPN SportsCenter news updates, seamlessly weaving an easily-followed narrative for the day that also becomes a very effective critique of media coverage that is alternately hilarious, disturbing, and voyeuristic. “June 17, 1994,” may not be the best film in the 30 for 30 series, but it is probably the most compelling.
Odds & Ends: One thing that’s consistently entertaining about 30 for 30 is the inclusion of ESPN footage from whichever year the event it depicts takes place. Seeing the old SportsCenter sets, and those broadcasters in their eighties or nineties fashions, hairstyles, and mustaches, is always amusing.
Other great 30 for 30 episodes include:
- “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks,” directed by Dan Klores, a humorous look at the Pacers-Knicks playoff series in back-to-back years.
- Albert Maysles’ “Muhammad and Larry,” about the runup to the fight between Ali and Holmes, a fight that Ali never should have fought.
- Hoop Dreams director Steve James’ “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” an amazing examination of racial politics, and how they are tied to high school athletics, in small-town America.
The worst 30 for 30 is, without a doubt, “Silly Little Game,” about some dudes who claim they created Fantasy Baseball. Even many of the weaker films among the 30 are worth watching if they happen to show up on TV and nothing else is on. This one is definitely not. The second-most-annoying (though much more competently made) is probably “Four Days in October,” the Simmons entry, about the Boston Red Sox comeback against the Yankees before winning the 2004 World Series. Wasn’t the point to cover stories that hadn’t been beaten to death?
Lastly: if a vehicle only managed to make it three-quarters of the way back to Brentwood carrying OJ Simpson, would it be a white Ford LeBronco?
Recurring Episodes will be back with another exciting installment on June 30. What will be covered? It’s a cliffhanger.