This may be the best and the worst time for HBO's veteran football documentary series Hard Knocks to be poking its cameras into the behind-the-scenes goings on at one (or in this case two) NFL franchises, but return it will, premiering its brand new season tonight at 10:00 PM ET. In a normal year, the fact that Hard Knocks is featuring two teams for the first time in its history — both the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, the new occupants of a fancy new shared stadium in downtown L.A. — would be notable enough. But this year, as the NFL attempts to carry on as scheduled despite the COVID-19 pandemic raising major questions and alarms, Hard Knocks is set to be on the front lines of the single most uncertain preseason in NFL history.
Hard Knocks premiered in 2001, ran for two seasons, and then went away until 2007, when it kicked off a run that continues right up until today. The documentary series rather uniquely covers the training camp phase of a football team's pre-season over the course of five weeks, filming, editing, and premiering episodes as camp unfolds. The show tends to focus on the many decisions a head coach must make as the season draws closer, as well as younger rookies adjusting to the NFL, and players who may or may not make the cut for the teams' final Week 1 rosters. Some seasons have been more interesting than others, but the ambition of rolling out the season in real time has always made the series feel urgent when stacked up against other sports docs. "Urgent" of course is a funny word when discussing the 2020 NFL season.
When COVID first made its presence felt in the U.S. in February and March, the NFL was in the deadest part of its offseason. While college basketball, the NBA, and the NHL all had to abruptly put the brakes on their seasons, and Major League Baseball had to begin scrambling to adjust plans for a rapidly approaching Opening Day, the NFL played the waiting game. It didn't take too much adjusting to conduct their rookie draft remotely, with team general managers and draft picks alike setting up cameras in their basements and family rooms. The expectation, or at least the hope, was that the United States would have its COVID situation under enough control come September that the season wouldn't have to be delayed or shortened — even if certain concessions like playing games in empty stadiums had to be adopted.
In case you haven't noticed, that controlled situation never happened, and so pro sports — eager, even desperate to salvage some kind of existence amid a pandemic whose end point looks hazy at best — have begun to creep back in whatever imperfect fashion they can. Some have been more successful than others. The NBA and NHL have adopted "bubble" solutions, where the teams quarantined for a time in a central location, cutting off outside contact and testing to minimize the chance of an outbreak. Thus far, it's worked, and both pro basketball and pro hockey have returned to our televisions, giving American sports fans a modicum of normalcy in an uncertain time. Major League Baseball restricted its schedules to minimize travel over long distances, but it's still led to many instances of positive COVID tests, leading to game postponements and growing sense that the season may not make it to the finish line.
The NFL season is still weeks away from beginning, but warning signs are already there. Players and coaches have tested positive for COVID, and many more players are taking the option to forego this season and return to play next year. Who knows how many more will make that same decision before Week 1. With Hard Knocks on hand to cover training camp in Los Angeles, while California bears the brunt of some of the worst COVID numbers in the country, it's hard to imagine how the show won't focus heavily on players making the hard decision of whether to stay and play or opt out. And of course there's always the possibility that things will get bad enough that the season will be delayed or even (unlikely considering how much money is at stake) canceled altogether.
You have to feel bad for the Chargers and the Rams. How can their rather pedestrian training camp concerns compare to the national moment of crisis that's dwarfing the sport? Hard Knocks has always split the difference between human interest (an undrafted rookie trying to beat the odds and make the team) and hardcore sports-fan-bait. But its appeal has been rooted in the appeal of all live sports: the unpredictability and uncertainty. Will a new superstar emerge in training camp? Will an injury throw the team's hopes into chaos? Will an on-field scuffle upset the team chemistry and bode ill for the season ahead? This season, that uncertainty has been cranked up to a far more serious level, and whether or not that's good news for sports fans, it will be documented for HBO's viewers to see.
Hard Knocks: Los Angeles premieres on HBO tonight at 10:00 PM ET
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.