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Netflix Has ESPN's 30 For 30 in Its Sights

Untold , the streamer's new sports film series, is at its best when it lives up to its title.
  • Jermaine O'Neal and Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers in an image from Untold: Malice at the Palace. (Netflix)
    Jermaine O'Neal and Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers in an image from Untold: Malice at the Palace. (Netflix)

    The promise you make when you title your sports documentary series "Untold" is that you'll be delivering stories that we haven't heard before. With the five films lined up for Netflix's new documentary series Untold, that promise isn't always kept. It's hard to make the argument that the infamous 2005 brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons was underreported or that Caitlyn Jenner has lacked for a media spotlight. But over the course of five episodes, Untold does uncover some lesser told stories, from the suddenly timely tale of a tennis player plagued with panic and anxiety, to an acclaimed female boxer who was fighting through a nightmare of spousal abuse, to a minor league hockey team that was run by the teenage son of a mobster. And even when it comes to Caitlyn Jenner or the Pacers-Pistons brawl, Untold maintains an admirable dedication to telling these stories from the perspectives of the people who actually lived them.

    The new film series comes from brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, who saw big success with Wild Wild Country, the documentary about an Oregon cult that hit Netflix in 2018 and became a flashy watercooler success. Nothing in the five installments of Untold seems likely to draw the kind of breathless rubbernecking that Wild Wild Country did, but the Way brothers do have an eye for a compelling story. The first film, "Malice at the Palace," premiering on August 10, looks back at the 2005 incident in Detroit where an on-court fracas between the Detroit Pistons and the visiting Indiana Pacers erupted into a brawl after a fan threw a full beer at Pacers player Ron Artest. The film tells the story from the perspective of the three Pacers players caught at the incident's center: Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, and Stephen Jackson. And while we've seen the incident covered over the years in myriad ways — from the perspectives of media, race, and fan entitlement —- the decision to get the story direct from the people involved manages to place all those angles in perspective, while also telling a thorny story about teammates thrown together by purpose and circumstance.

    The Jenner installment takes a particularly iconoclastic track, with the reality TV star telling the story of her Olympic decathlon triumph at the 1976 Montreal games. Jenner takes care to spell out her attitude when it comes to her pre-transition athletic exploits. She describes "Bruce Jenner" as a kind of character she played, and one she wants to give credit and respect to when it comes to recounting those athletic experiences. Jenner has certainly proved to be a rather particular presence in popular culture, serving as an early figure of trans visibility for many in mainstream America while at the same time espousing right-wing sentiments that often leave those who aren't blessed with Jenner's wealth and access behind. That's not the subject at hand in the episode titled "Caitlyn Jenner," however, and the decision to tell a story that is 90% a document of Jenner's Montreal Olympics triumph will probably go so far as viewers' interest in the subject will take it.

    Far more interesting are the other three films in the series, which each tell surprising stories that, while having received some contemporaneous attention in sports media, feel more genuinely like "untold" stories. "Deal with the Devil," which premieres on August 17, focuses on Christy Martin, a breakthrough female boxer whose rise to fame in the 1990s was accompanied by a terrifyingly abusive marriage. "Crime & Penalties," premiering August 31, tells the story of a minor-league hockey team in Connecticut whose on-ice reputation as WWE-style brawlers and self-appointed "bad boys" was set by its owner, a mobster under investigation by the FBI, and his 17-year-old son, whose job as the team's general manager was the culmination of his passions for pro wrestling and The Mighty Ducks.

    The most timely entry in the series is "Breaking Point," which tells the story of American pro tennis player Mardy Fish, who grew up in the shadow of American #1 Andy Roddick and whose quest to become a Top 10 player was marred by a panic and anxiety disorder. With the topic of mental health in pro sports a hot one these days, hearing Fish tell his story is particularly affecting and illuminating.

    At its best, Untold compares favorably to ESPN's 30 for 30, which also tends to excel when it's spotlighting stories that haven't already been covered to death. And while none of the Untold films veer into the kind of filmmaking verve that a lot of the 30 for 30 features do, both projects are notable for choosing compelling subjects and giving them the room to share their experiences. Each installment clocks in at around 70-80 minutes, and Netflix is dropping them weekly, as it's done recently with the Fear Street trilogy and some of its higher profile reality fare. Whether Untold will gather that kind of momentum over its five weeks remains to be seen, but these are some fascinating stories that are well worth watching.

    "Malice at the Palace," the first film in Netflix's Untold series, premieres Tuesday August 10th.

    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, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Untold, Netflix