TV Minus the TV: Ferrell Takes the Field is inessential and forgettable, and that’s why I love it
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
If you loathe yourself enough to watch telecasts of the big network press conferences at major TV conferences such as the Television Critics Association, Paleyfest, and the like, you’ll notice that executives love certain words and fear others. The word “miniseries” has all but vanished from the public-relations vocabulary. Instead, networks now run “limited-run series”, or, far more commonly, an “event series.”
The folks in charge of TV brands have gone gaga for the word “event”, referring to specials as “one-night events” and everything that’s not a week-to-week multi-season project as “event programming.” Their goal is relatively transparent: the word “event” conveys a sense of bigness, of unmissability. It’s the exact opposite of a miniseries, closer in the connotation to something like a megaseries. Everything is the next big thing.
The cumulative effect of this mentality over time is an overall numbness to hype.# It can sometimes feel like the TV-viewing public is approaching some kind of programming singularity, wherein every single week delivers unto us a world-shaking, cataclysmic televisual Event. The pop-cultural landscape needs a small-scale champion, a hero to introduce a little modesty of vision to the sound and fury of weekly TV.
Enter Will Ferrell.
HBO recently ran a one-off special by the name of Ferrell Takes The Field to minimal fanfare, a press strategy befitting the humble ambitions of the project. With a forty-nine minute runtime, Field is too short to be fairly called a TV-movie and too long to be written off as a trivial short. It’s something closer to the superb 7 Days In Hell, a flight-of-fancy experiment that never tries to be anything more than what it is. It won’t go down in history as a work of comic brilliance (though it is, sporadically, quite funny), and it might even be forgotten by the year’s end. But that’s what’s so wonderfully refreshing about this nobly-intended vanity project; it refrains from the sort of “event” angling that’s made the simple act of keeping up-to-date on the outlay of the TV schedule so exhausting over the past year.
On March 12 of this year, Ferrell successfully completed a feat only accomplished by four men before him#: he played all ten positions in Major League Baseball over the course of a single day. What’s more, he did so on ten different teams, pulling this stunt off by jet-setting between five different preseason exhibition matches taking place around Arizona. Ferrell gets some prime humor from the mad logistics that made this quixotic quest possible, facetiously bitching about being “traded” by each of the squads after a single inning’s duration# and groaning every time he’s got to catch transport to the next stadium, hilariously needling his producer about skimping on a private chopper and placing him on a bus.
Though I’m sure he has the power and influence to do so, Ferrell didn’t try his hand in MLB on a lark. The project was borne from the best of intentions, as a collaboration with a foundation called Cancer for College that, as the name may suggest, provides cancer-stricken youths with tuition money to pursue higher education. Ferrell’s boyhood friend and cancer survivor Craig Pollard founded the charity, and the circumstances conspiring to create this surreal project suddenly become clear.
Ferrell manages to have a lot of fun while going through the process, waxing rhapsodic on the quiet dignity of the sacrifice bunt and fashioning a beard out of sunflower seeds while riding the bench. Even so, the nervewracking stakes are made abundantly clear; Ferrell’s not a professional baseball player, and is in many respects the opposite.
Out-of-shape, not especially strong, and lacking in the keen tactical instinct that wins World Series rings, Ferrell understands his own position as a dilettante in the game. And his constantly cycling teammates aren’t always delighted at the prospect of having an amateur elbow his way into their precious training time, especially someone as comically obnoxious as Ferrell — on a few occasions, Ferrell busts balls about possibly taking over the position full-time if things work out. When Ferrell’s there in the batter’s box, that’s a real-ass pitch coming into the strike zone. When he’s on the pitcher’s mound, the batter’s more than ready to crush whatever pansy curve Ferrell might be able to cough up. Things don’t go dismally, and yet at the same time, the special sometimes resembles an anxiety test dream, wherein the individual’s thrust into a situation without even the slightest preparation. Ferrell’s gaffe of bringing his bulky wallet with him out onto the field in his first go as a shortstop is almost too perfectly representative of his fish-out-of-water dynamic with the sport.
I’ve got a running suspicion that once a celebrity attains a certain level of fame, they can conceivably do whatever they please. Ferrell Takes The Field provides compelling support for that theory, but at least Ferrell’s vanity projects serve a greater good and result in solidly entertaining fare such as this.
If only every network had the cojones to not swing for the fences.
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