I do not consider Hard Knocks a part of my sport-watching schedule, so I come to this conclusion solely without bias and based entirely on the hearsay of others, minimal news reports, Antonio Brown’s balloon arrival, and the law of diminishing returns:
This will be the best persistent spectacle in the history of the show, and in all likelihood the year that the series finally jumps the inflatable shark.
Hard Knocks has gone through a number of reinventions since it tried to be the fly on the wall for the 2001 Baltimore Ravens. As is often the case in entertainment, the earliest shows are the best because they are the least polished, the actors the least aware of what’s expected of them, and the audience the least jaded. This year, though, HBO has decided to go full anime, booking the Las-Vegas-As-Soon-As-We-Can-Get-There Raiders and all the things that implies for Season 14 (they skipped 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2011, the last because of lockout fears).
Of all of them, this will be the least genuine look at an NFL training camp because the Raiders were in on the joke from the start. Jon Gruden as head coach and operational czar … Mark Davis, whether he is on-screen or not … Brown in all his moods … Richie Incognito and his HR-able resume … Derek Carr and his doe-like eyes … it’s as if Gruden and Mike Mayock built the team for the preseason reality show.
But that isn’t the issue. The issue is that players, coaches, and suits in all sports are better than ever before at knowing where the camera is and when it is on. They are actors as soon as they leave the house because in the post-privacy world they know the deal in a way that the 2001 Ravens didn’t. And this Raiders team is built to all the stereotypes almost by design because the chief builder is all the stereotypes by himself. He built his fame that way: by going from football nerd the way many sons of football people do, to the rebellious coach fighting the rebellious owner, to television actor playing a caricature of a coach.
Then you add Brown, who opened with the hot air balloon ride and is only going to be more Brown as camp develops. Then you add Carr, the antithesis of everything Hard Knocks celebrates. Then you add Mayock, the general manager who also did TV but pretends like he is above and beyond it. Then you add Incognito, who is all backstory, much of it cringeworthy. Then you add Davis, the guy who everyone underestimates for excellent reason, even Sheldon Adelson. Then you add Vegas itself, never seen but always in frame, and Oakland, also never seen but obscured by the money factory that is the Napa Valley.
In other words, this Hard Knocks will be disingenuous almost by definition even before you realize it isn’t a football show at all. And let me be clear about this part: I don’t mind that a bit. Entertainment is hard to make no matter the constrictions, and if the Raiders can indeed make this best Hard Knocks ever, I’m fine with it. It won’t change my viewing habits, but I reluctantly accept the fact that other people have tastes and opinions and choices too.
The Raiders will quite likely make this the zenith of the series because the league embraced what the show had to become by the natural evolution of sports and television—a Rick And Morty episode. And good on them and HBO for figuring it out.
But this is where the shark comes in. If the Raiders are as advertised this August, next year’s Hard Knocks will be a spectacular letdown. It has to be. It could ask for Bill Belichick, but that’s not happening. It could ask for Jerry Jones, but we’ve seen more than enough of that caramel-dipped apple. It could ask for Green Bay, but there are only so many cheese-based establishing shots a viewer can endure. It could ask for more Raiders, but by then they’ll be played out.
No, the Raiders represent both a summit and a cul de sac in Hard Knocks history. And that’s if it is a triumph. If it isn’t, the letdown will be seismic, and football fans will find new ways to pretend August matters. Hard Knocks may endure as an HBO staple, but these Raiders are their last best opportunity for the show to make a broad impact in the canine days of summer, and it either will never be better than this, or it will be damaged beyond repair. It’s the logical all-in play for a franchise that has been more successful than half the teams in the league, but it’s also the play that seems like the Warner Brothers telenovela “Show Biz Bugs,” which ends with Daffy Duck swallowing explosives on stage and saying as he heads toward the afterlife: “But I can only do it once.”
Yes, it’s a dated reference, but the only other character in American entertainment who would be willing to blow him- or herself into smithereens before an audience is Jon Gruden, and he’s got nine more years on his contract.
Ray Ratto breathlessly awaits the next fevered David Roth Mets piece, which is to say he hopes he is dead before it appears.