Apple’s new steaming service has teamed up with Lebron James and Tom Brady to produce this surprisingly engaging TV series, which applies creative animation to stories of sports excellence.
Before team sports return from their long coronavirus hiatus in late July, Apple TV+ is serving up a new, short-form documentary series, featuring a group of athletic icons. Greatness Code is directed by Gotham Chopra, and comes from the production companies of Lebron James and Tom Brady, both of whom are featured in the series.
At first glance, Greatness Code looks a lot like some of the other documentary projects Apple TV+ has pursued, most recently Dear and Dads. Those shows entailed Apple getting into business with big-name talent, but not doing anything particularly interesting with that talent aside from extolling their all-around greatness.
Furthermore, it’s a short-form series, with the episodes lasting just five to eight minutes. As the disastrous recent launch of the streaming service Quibi has shown, the concept of “star-studded and short-form” has its limitations.
However, Greatness Code is a pleasant surprise, largely because it finds creative and clever ways to present a sports documentary, which include animation and special effects. And as opposed to Dear, which was built around the notion of people writing letters to the featured celebrities, Greatness Code actually includes surprising moments of self-doubt.
King James and Tom Terrific
Director Chopra, the son of Deepak Chopra, previously made the Showtime documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse, about the since-deceased NBA legend, and Tom vs. Time, about Brady’s training regimen. He went on to found the “content platform” Religion of Sports, along with Brady and NFL star-turned-TV host Michael Strahan, and that company co-produced Greatness Code along with James’ “athlete empowerment brand,” Uninterrupted.
James, for his part, has actually pursued interesting projects in his entertainment industry forays, most notably with the HBO talk show The Shop, and deserves credit for not just letting this project be a hagiography of himself and the other participating stars.
Each episode focuses on a specific, important moment in the athlete’s career. And the athletes make surprising choices, which in most cases aren’t about their most famous games.
Best of eight
The first and best episode, featuring James himself, focuses on a specific game in 2012, when he played for the Miami Heat and faced the Boston Celtics. James speaks eloquently about how that series led to his winning his first career championship, in helping to shed the “choker” label he’d sometimes lived with up to that point.
In talking about that playoff series against the Celtics, James mentions that Boston isn’t “an African-American-friendly place,” in a quote that’s overlaid with footage from the 1970s Boston busing crisis. I expect that one quote to get some attention, as well as some sports-radio chaos in that city, although James’ sentiment isn’t something that African-American athletes haven’t been saying about that city for decades.
The Brady episode, surprisingly, doesn’t focus on any of the many Super Bowls he played in, or even famous playoff games. Instead, it’s about a 2007 game in Buffalo, when his New England Patriots crushed the Bills 56-10 in a Sunday night regular season game.
The segment is about a generally forgettable game, and Brady is no one’s idea of an especially engaging interview subject. But it does some really cool things with game footage, including some kaleidoscopic views of the field and strategically placed splashes of color.
Alex Morgan, the longtime star of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, chooses a U.S.-Canada championship game from 2012, her first in the national team’s starting lineup.
The highlight of this one, once again, is the fantastic animation, which depicts the soccer pitch as a maze, and later as the inside of a pinball game. Morgan also discusses both the Women’s World Cup championship team last year, and the team’s fight for equal pay with the men’s team, which didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup.
Your Olympic heroes
The series then shifts, for three episodes, to a focus on Olympic athletes. Sprinter Usain Bolt talks about a particular race at the IAAF world championships, in which he and his main opponent are depicted as rocket ships.
In snowboarder Shaun White’s segment, he talks about a 2018 competition, while giving the animators an opportunity to create a halfpipe and ski lifts. And swimmer Katie Ledecky’s episode does the same thing with the pool.
In the final episode, featuring surfer Kelly Slater, the animators have some fun with the metaphor of surfing being like a church. Sure, baseball and hockey are among the sports not represented. But the animated segments are so impressive that I’d like to see them applied in the future.
A new approach
This may be a new kind of show for Apple TV+, but it isn’t the first in its genre. This Spring, ESPN debuted
The Last Dance — a ten-part, long-in-the-works project about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls — and was a bona fide phenomenon, quickly becoming that network’s most-watched documentary ever.
Greatness Code isn’t trying to be The Last Dance, although a similar, nine-part series about Brady called The Man in the Arena has already been announced by ESPN, to air in 2021, with Chopra once again at the helm. There’s been no announcement of that type of series about James, but one would appear inevitable.
But Greatness Code is outstanding in a different way, showing that there are still new ones to approach the long-in-the-tooth form of televised sports documentaries.