TV dramas about sports are hard. For every Friday Night Lights, there are a bunch of failures. The material can seem invitingly rich in possibility – success and failure achieved by strength, or by tiny margins. Ego and bad attitude. Heroes exposed as weak, coaches illuminated as petty tyrants or motivational geniuses.
Often, mind you, it simply doesn't work. There is the problem of verisimilitude. Viewers are familiar with pro sports and look at their heroes as remote icons. Fiction about such figures can seem inauthentic and phony.
21 Thunder (starts on CBC, Monday, 9 p.m.) manages to out-manoeuvre all the possible pitfalls by being about soccer and mainly not about big stars and crucial games, but about young players on the cusp of being full-time professionals and potential legends. It's an excellent melodrama that reaches into the lavishly exotic and coarse world of club soccer and pulls out stories and characters that are believable and compelling.
The culture of soccer is the same wherever the grass grows, and that is everywhere, worldwide. 21 Thunder is anchored in Montreal and the "21" refers to the under-21 team, the second-string guys lurking just behind the first team, a fictional Montreal MLS team, but one that might, for soccer fans here, not be a million miles from the real Montreal Impact, or Toronto FC, for that matter.
The under-21 team, or its equivalent, is crucial. It's where the future lies, it's where the talent must be found for a team that cannot afford to buy superstars from around the soccer universe. The idea is to find young players, wherever possible and nurture them.
The opening episode is anchored by a great young player, Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo), and persuading him to leave the Ivory Coast to sign for the Montreal Thunder. He does, and demands that his younger brother come, too. The under-21 boss, Rocas (Conrad Pla, wonderfully gruff), is pleased with the acquisition, but he has other issues – the owners have foisted a former female soccer star, Christy Cook (Stephanie Bennett), on him as assistant coach for the public relations value. Christy is a bit out of her depth in this world and, besides, she has an ill mother to take care of.
At the youth team's core is Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh), the most talented of them all. He's on the brink of the first team and has a supportive girlfriend, but there's trouble lurking. In the way of such melodramas, Nolan's from a criminal family. He gets mixed up in some bad business one night and, at the end of the first episode we get a glimpse of the real source of his troubles, his criminal father Declan (Colm Feore), who is sitting in jail.
The series deftly and enthusiastically takes us into the bawdy subculture that is reserve-team soccer. The young men are cocky, some are deeply serious athletes and others are only serious about skirt-chasing. There's a nice bit of business involving Nolan and the hotshot-but-over-the-hill British star Davey Gunn (Ryan Pierce), a recognizable, talented jerk to any soccer fan. But he could be from any sport – all macho aggression, boasting and meanness. He's right out of the British tabloids and Pierce inhabits him with lip-smacking relish.
21 Thunder arrives at an auspicious time in Canadian soccer. The national men's team had a good run at the recent Gold Cup and the tournament was the unveiling of 16-year-old Alphonso Davies, a true phenomenon. Davies's story might well be the stuff of fiction – he was born in a refugee camp in Ghana after his parents fled war in Liberia, and came to Canada when he was 5, his family moving a year later from Windsor, Ont., to Edmonton. He started playing for the second-string Vancouver Whitecaps team just last year. Around him on the Canadian team are others who would not be out of place on 21 Thunder.
Setting the series inside a youth team is a wise move. The sequences in which games are played cannot be expected to match real, packed-stadium professional soccer.
Yet, truths about the game and the culture abound, some in familiar theatrical fashion and some with a canny understanding of why soccer is the world's game.
There is the guy who is an old prospect on his last chance to prove his worth, and he's paranoid about injury. There are the guys who instantly resent Junior, the guy plucked from the Ivory Coast and given a better apartment and more money. There is sex, betrayal of the team and betrayal of others.
CBC has promoted the series as "soccer, sex, love and race," which makes it sound more soap opera than it is.
Sure, there are some hokey scenes to establish the characters and Nolan's troubles with his criminal family are a bit drawn-out at first, but 21 Thunder gels into a sleek drama about the game, the guys, the women who must nourish or provoke them, and the pressure to succeed at the one thing these guys can do well.
It's highly enjoyable and addictive, even if you're just a casual soccer fan. And it's not the male-centric drama you might expect. There is a sharp edge to the female characters. Mostly it is fast, action-packed, sort-of realistic and gripping. It's fine entertainment, and it's one of those dramas about sports that succeeds.