24/7, Episode 1: Not Perfect, But Hilarious, Infinitely Watchable, and a Breakthrough For Hockey on TV

Puck the Media will after morning-after reviews for every episode of HBO’s 24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic.

Liev Schriber, the ever-present narrator of HBO’s consistently terrific sports documentary programming, asks something that’s very telling about the new series that’s going to follow around NHL teams in-season and uncensored for the first time ever. He asks something to the effect of “If you saw something from the inside out, would you recognize it?”. That proves to be a theme of 24/7 throughout: This is completely newfound territory for hockey broadcasting. We’re in uncharted waters, and baby, it’s fantastic.

In fact, the only times when HBO’s 24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic isn’t excellent and groundbreaking is when they rely on what little cliches there are involved in hockey documentary programming: The players give some boring interviews from time to time, there are a few too many highlights, and sometimes they stick on things that aren’t as interesting a little too long when we’d rather be hearing some real dirt, like the Penguins road trip prankery set to “Right Back Where We Started From”, or Alexander Ovechkin’s spine-tingling yelp to his team to pick things up after his fight in a blowout loss.

When this series is truly showing us things we’ve never seen before, it’s fire on ice. It struck me many times as a hockey documentarian’s version of a Wes Anderson movie: beautifully, innovative camera work, dry narration and sentiment, and as rip-roaringly intense as it is fall-down hilarious. 24/7 is every bit the breakthrough that the NHL and HBO wanted when they set out to do this, and thank fucking God it is: hockey fans needed this.

Why? Because we’re tired of hearing how our sport is impossible to portray as exciting. Tired of hearing how the foreign players and the too-nice-for-TV personalities hurt the sport. That the sport simply can’t reach the drama and intrigue of football or basketball. Bullshit. From Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau’s constant, painful tirades, to Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma’s intriguing chat about player performance with GM Ray Shero, this was the inside stuff all sports fans dream of, regardless of what’s happening on the field. Only Hard Knocks has come close to the access 24/7 has gotten, meaning the NHL is ahead of almost everyone else in something on TV. Just you wait, the NBA and MLB will be on HBO within the year.

What else did I like? I can’t complement enough the choices of camera shots for this, and the vibrant, intense colors. Did you notice something? That not one shot of game action came from anywhere other than ice level. It made hockey look like Miracle again, a bunch of bulls in a China shop playing a game that can be beautiful and brutal. It was war out there, from the inside look at what goes on during fights to just the stirring audio of Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason taking the team apart.

Speaking of war, that’s another theme that the network got exactly right. Hockey is a gorgeous war, and the producers did not shy away from portraying it as such. Whereas Hard Knocks look like a vacation, 24/7 is regular season hockey, so you get the sense that everything is life or death both on and off the ice. Pascal Dupuis saying goodbye to his children was particularly moving. Dupuis was one of the few stars on either team that I felt I had a different impression of. We’ll see if the Capitals winning some games (hopefully) gets some new blood into their portion of the show.

Another great choice? I’ve never really seen a “Talking Heads” type interview series done this way, with the players/coaches faces completely front and center, zoomed in so you could see every last scar and loose tooth. This gambit ended up with wing sauce in their faces in the case of Boudreau, but for everyone else, it found a new way to reinvent a tired format. 24/7 isn’t just reinventing NHL television, they’re reinventing the documentary format.

24/7 isn’t perfect, though it sure sounds like it from this review. I’d like to see them cut out some of the more boring bits and have them go-go-go with the exciting inside hockey stuff. The highlights from ice level were well shot, but eventually, you just realize that even the most casual fan can just see it on YouTube if he wants. Overall, however, 24/7 is an instant victory for our sport, for the NHL, and for HBO. As long as the ratings are decent (we’ll have them later today), this should become a yearly tradition as solid as the Winter Classic itself. Bravo to all involved.

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