One weekend a year, it seems everything and everyone stops to watch the Superbowl. It can be a lonely time for those who avoid sports, but there is a way to get into the spirit of things without actually watching the game. Even for non-football fans, tales of fallen athletes, junior-college programs, and high-school coaches and their endlessly patient wives offer endless opportunities for onscreen drama. They can turn sports tales into heart-rending narratives that even the most cynical viewers can enjoy.
With that in mind, here are seven football shows worth watching, even if you're not a fan of the sport.
Before it became a TV series, Friday Night Lights was a book by Buzz Bissinger, and then a movie directed by Bissinger's cousin, Peter Berg. Both are great, but the show, also developed by Berg, is the very best iteration of the story. The series explores the relationship of a small town in Texas with its high-school football team, and how it changes after a tragic injury strikes its star quarterback, Jason Street (played by Scott Porter). Friday Night Lights stumbled occasionally — all the "jokes" you've heard about skipping the second season should be taken with the utmost seriousness — it's bad — but this textured rendition of smalltown problems never condescends. Coach Taylor and Tami's marriage feels lived-in and real. And the issues of race, class, and the drive to get out of town are handled with unflinching honesty. It's also frequently hilarious (when he's not mired in a ridiculous manslaughter subplot, Jesse Plemons's Landry is a reliable source of classic lines).
Because it follows a different NFL team through its pre-season training camp each season, this one's probably the footballiest of the shows on the list — and, because it's co-produced by NFL Films, it's also less critical of the NFL and pro-sports culture, despite the behind-the-scenes feel it's going for. But it often achieves that feel anyway, and though some seasons are better than others, the drama inherent in following a team (or watching a new boss adjusting to a frequently dysfunctional corporate culture) is consistently compelling. Start with the Jets season, or either installment following the Bengals.
The case of Hernandez — convicted of murder, the former New England Patriots tight end died of suicide in 2017 — continues to preoccupy football fans, football detractors, true-crime consumers, and just about everyone else, possibly because we still don't feel like we know why Hernandez came to the end he did. Was it abuse Hernandez endured as a child, or the beatings his brain took on the field? (His autopsy revealed a markedly advanced case of CTE for a man as young as Hernandez.) Did he lead a so-called double life because he hoped to conceal his sexual orientation, or because the hypocritical priorities of Division I football programs meant he and other stars could give lip service to consequences, but never feel any? Was it all of these things, or was he just a bad guy? We'll never know for sure, and while Killer Inside doesn't do a great job marshaling the answers we do have, it's well-paced, and a good overview of a story that's more about criminal justice and the sociology of toxic masculinity than it is about sports.
Division I football players who struggled in the big programs sometimes end up at junior-college programs like East Mississippi Community College, rebuilding their transcripts and reputations, and hoping for another shot at the big time. Last Chance U follows their journeys, and those of the coaches, academic advisors, and communities around them. While there's no shortage of football in the show, it's everything that's at stake via football that makes Last Chance U a magnetic watch. (If you like Cheer, this series comes from the same production team, and offers a similarly skillful blending of suspense and sentiment.)
Switch it up with this sitcom about the "family" that forms around a fantasy-football league. Those of us who have made the mistake of embroiling ourselves in fantasy football with the in-laws will get a lot out of the micro jokes, but for everyone else, especially Happy Endings fans, it's just fun to watch Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, and a cavalcade of guest stars from the NFL and the comedy worlds at work.
OJ Simpson came to fame as a football star, but that's not how he'll be remembered. This Oscar-winning documentary about Simpson and the forces that shaped him, isn't really about football either. (That said, you don't have to know anything about the game to be awed by footage of him eluding hordes of defenders during his playing days.) It's about race, corrupt policing, the corrosive effects of celebrity on the justice system, and the birth of reality TV… In sort, it's about America. Not easy, but monumental.
Our last recommendation is somewhat timely — one of the show's first-season subjects, Jake Fromm, recently declared for the NFL draft — and shares DNA with Friday Night Lights, as it's also directed by Peter Berg. Each season focuses on a handful of different top high-school quarterbacks, most already committed to Division I programs, and the different challenges they face depending on where they live, their backgrounds, and the schools they've chosen. As with Hard Knocks, how riveting it is can depend on the subjects chosen, but, every season has soething to say about the pressure to achieve, the physical toll the game is already taking on teenagers (who are also asked to shoulder financial and PR burdens that would make many adults buckle), and the way this multi-billion-dollar sport dominates some lives so early despite possibly life-threatening consequences.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. She's also the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tomato Nation, and true-crime blog and podcast The Blotter Presents.