While it may not make for Game of Thrones-level debate around the water coolers of a busy start-up, sports programming remains the true unifier for American audiences: 19 of the 20 most- watched broadcasts ever in the United States are Super Bowls (screw you, M*A*S*H!)
Yet—possibly because of lingering elitist condescension towards competitive programming, or perhaps simply because bingeing is easier with frothy true crime—the digital-first development world has been slower to venture into episodic sports series than its cable counterparts. Sixteen years since HBO first went behind the scenes of the NFL in its groundbreaking Hard Knocks, a spare group of sports nonfiction shows, including the network’s own NHL docuseries 24/7 (now nearing its fourth season on EPIX), have attempted to fill the void. But only recently have streaming originals like Netflix’s Last Chance U (2016) and Le Mans: Racing is Everything, which premiered on Amazon last month, begun to add to the list of options.
The companies behind those shows are behemoths of the “see what sticks” variety, less intent on reaching specific audiences than in reaching audiences, period, with whatever sells. As a result, their programs are more visible than most on the web, despite the fact that the most direct attempts to reach fans who prefer not to pay for ESPN subscription packages (or scoop a friend’s HBOGO password) are actually being made by Complex Networks.
Complex—a subsidiary of Verizon Hearts Media Partners whose videos regularly generate more than 800 million views a month—makes no secret of catering to males between the ages of 18-24, and it’s true that the bulk of Complex’s cross-platform output, across sites like Collider, Greenlabel and Seriously.tv, includes a generous share of throwaway listicles, obnoxious Vice-style news updates, and tabloid gossip. More and more, however, Complex has shown an interest in doing more than just tapping the lucrative keg of all-American douche-bros when it comes to its original programming.
An investment in adventurous, often esoteric ideas has produced series about outlaw skateboarders (the upcoming American Down Low), women’s sketch troupes (the charming Sorry Not Sorry), and increasingly spicy chicken wings (First We Feast’s Hot Ones, which features possibly the best Nick Kroll interview in history). Even aimless trifles like its celebrity-heavy hit Sneaker Shopping feel closer in vibe to the hippest era of MTV—think Pimp My Ride as directed by Morgan Spurlock—than to ramshackle, low-budget YouTube one-offs.
But most impressive are the company’s compelling sports shows, which exhibit unexpected aesthetic tastefulness and sensitivity for web series. The exemplar of this achievement is its new episodic docudrama, Rated Red’s Road to Race Day, which premiered for free on the Go90 platform earlier this month.
Like Senna, the enthralling documentary about doomed Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, RtRD, as it’s usefully abbreviated, is an explicit fusion of traditional themes (gambling, violence, fame) with a more contemporary approach to visual storytelling. That is to say, while the series focuses on the dangerous careers of American stock car racers, it looks less like NASCAR broadcasts than art films, in large part because its executive producers include Peter Berg, the creator of another groundbreaking sports program: Friday Night Lights.
In the first four of eight Race Day episodes, director Cynthia Hill and her cinematographers—Rex Miller, Josh Woll and Blaire Johnson—lean on cinéma vérité camerawork when shooting superstars like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and newcomer Chase Elliott. Every couple of episodes finds Hill focusing on a new race, a new player and a new team, including crew chiefs, sponsors and professional mentors like Jeff Gordon and Elliott’s racing legend father, Bill Elliott.
Amid the fly-on-the-wall stuff, Hill and team have smuggled in handsomely photographed, formerly private activities usually reserved for the athletes: pit crews exercising together at corporate headquarters; Fox News correspondents fixing their hair before broadcasts; hyper-technical strategizing with secret graphs and maps like ancient military tacticians (the filmmakers received “unprecedented access” thanks to a production partnership with Hendrick Motorsports).
The pilot, which focuses primarily on young Elliott’s first Daytona 500 in 2016, contains some of the most beautiful slow-motion sports footage I’ve ever seen on television, even if it does bear equal resemblances to both Top Gun and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.
At nearly an hour per episode (which Rated Red breaks into three-part segments), RtRD is an effortful undertaking, but editor Tom Vickers keeps things buzzing by paying special attention to the social microcosms embedded in American racing culture. Hill interviews a vibrant network of fans, for example, without ever treating them as slavish creeps or, as I worried unnecessarily, as hicks.
Also refreshing is Vickers’s elaborate use of pit crew banter, not only because they curse gleefully at Earnhardt (who drops his own zingers), but also because each team displays a distinctive familial intimacy with the drivers. Onscreen, this feels breathtakingly new. As if to cover all their bases, the filmmakers even give face time to the overworked camerapeople and radio reporters who regularly cover the races.
This inclusive, bottom-up approach takes what might have been a suffocating slog for any but the most devoted NASCAR fan and turns it into a genuine door-opener for any media obsessives (ahem) who might otherwise never have watched a moment of racing in their lives. Hill’s true accomplishment is that she pushes the series into that rare space where prestige documentary television aesthetics are applied to a beloved national pastime not with distant condescension, but with reverence.
For Complex, the creative buck does not stop with RtRD. QB1: Beyond the Lights, the company’s flagship sports series (also produced by Berg), has been described not inaccurately as “the real Friday Night Lights,” both for its incisive exploration of modern-day competition and for its nauseating “realist” (i.e. shaky) photography. There’s also For The Win, the promising new series about a frisbee maestro’s journey into underground sports; Breaking Bass, an “extreme” fishing bonanza; and the upcoming Jackass-on-skateboards homage, Gnarkatz.
Still, given the Go90 platform, it is hard to know how and when these docuseries will be watched. Is RtRD destined only to be seen while sitting on a toilet? Or will Complex be able to elevate it into a staple program for sports bars and weekly family get-togethers? These days, is there much of a difference?
New episodes of Road to Race Day are available free every Wednesday on Complex Networks’ Rated Red, available on Go90.
Sean L. Malin is a media critic and producer based in Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Filmmaker Magazine; and he is the editor-in-chief of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.