There's nothing fancy about HBO's Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports, just the usual admixture of archival footage and photographs sprinkled with talking heads that describes most every television documentary. But the footage is splendid and rarely seen, the heads not often heard, and the story -- in which every victory on a court or field is a victory not just for the athlete and her sex, but for the planet at large, the struggle being not only to win but simply to play -- so inherently inspiring that it's enough for the filmmakers just to get out of the way and let the history roll. Time spent with people of talent who take what they do seriously enough to be taken seriously at it, who refuse to subscribe to faulty common wisdom, to accept a meager portion or to do what Daddy says just because it's Daddy's house, is time invariably well spent, just as it is always useful to be reminded how far we have come since the day before yesterday and of those who first said no so that we might say yes. "Tomorrow is a mystery," says Billie Jean King, whose joke-encrusted yet fundamentally serious 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match with Bobby Riggs is covered at perhaps disproportionate length, "but we can shape it if we know what came before" -- a sampler sentiment, possibly, but one worth believing. It might even be true.
In a time when a woman's well-developed bicep is accepted as plainly attractive, former notions of feminine delicacy, as well as the once-universal medical opinion that strenuous exercise might destroy the ability to reproduce -- which is to say, her reason for being -- seem very quaint indeed. But it was as late as 1966 that Bobbi Gibb, applying to run in the Boston Marathon, was officially informed that women were not "physiologically capable of running 26 miles, and furthermore they're not allowed to do it" (she ran it anyway, in nurse's shoes, sneaking onto the course and finishing in three hours, 20 minutes); and it was the next year that Kathrine Switzer, who had acquired an official number by applying as "K. Switzer," was physically attacked by a race director as she ran. The political dimensions of this second-class citizenry are not ignored, nor are questions of race, sexual identity and attractiveness (looks still count). But at heart, Dare To Compete is a love song -- to channel-swimmer Gertrude Ederle, to the polyathletic Babe Didrikson, to the barnstorming bloomer girls of 19th-century baseball and the All-American Girls league of World War II, track phenom Wilma Rudolph, court rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, basketball pro Sheryl Swoopes, to Title IX and its historic leveling of the playing field, and to all those who helped change what it means to throw, or run, or shoot, kick, swing, hit or steal second like a girl.
The one invarguable difference between men and women is the subject of another HBO documentary, Private Dicks: Men Exposed, in which dudes variously shaped, sized, colored and aged display and discuss the proportions, performance and pathology of their little Elvises. (Which also vary in shape, size, color and age -- though, as is argued more than once, it's not the meat but the motion, and a poor workman who blames his tool.) You will encounter, among less remarkable others, a man with a tiny one, a man with a big one, a man with one he made bigger, a man who uses his professionally, a man who can't use his at all, a man who got rid of his to become a woman, and a man who, having been a woman, had one made to become a man. You'll hear tales of erection, masturbation, defloration, ejaculation, procreation, contraception, circumcision, infection, dysfunction and other medical conditions we need not discuss here-- the agony and the ecstasy of the phallic condition exposed without sniggering by filmmakers Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, the careful hands who previously molded HBO's Breasts: 22 Women on 41 Breasts. "Men don't talk about their penises," says one subject, but evidently some of them do, and with an easy candor that seems positively un-American, and overall a self-awareness and sensitivity that ladies and gentlemen alike might well find surprising.
"I do have more watch in my tower," Thurgood Stubbs, the Eddie Murphy-voiced "star" of Fox's new "foamation" series The PJ's, noted recently of the priapic side effects of his hypertension medicine. Even the animated get animated nowadays.
Taking as its subject what Mad
magazine might have dubbed "The Lighter
Side of Poverty," The PJ's (for
"projects") is set in and around the
many-storied building Stubbs
superintends. The castaways of this
urban Gilligan's isle ("You can see
where the city services end," observes
the super from the top of his building)
include Stubbs' wife, Muriel, in classic
sitcom mode the commonsensical
counterweight to his impulsiveness, the
sweet to his salty; her sister and
Korean brother-in-law (a self-styled "Seoul
brother"); a cranky old woman given to
strokes and shotgun blasts; a Haitian
sorceress; a smoke-wreathed Rasta; and,
for younger-set identification (though,
the ineffable, infallible magic of
stop-motion notwithstanding, this is in
no sense a children's show), a couple of
kids, one of whose parents are too fat
to leave their apartment. Also in the
neighborhood are Smokey the
ex-crackhead, Tarnell the street-corner
fixer, and the shadowy woman from HUD.
In spite of their factory-installed
quirks and shortcomings, they are cute
and lovable -- certainly owing in part
to their great big heads and little tiny
bodies, but also because, beneath the
slapstick, squabbling and social
commentary, The PJ's concerns
mutual support, counted blessings and
Apparently confounding self-satire with self-loathing, Spike Lee has called the show (developed by In Living Color alumni Larry Wilmore and Steve Tompkins and animator Will Vinton from Murphy's original idea) "very demeaning" and "really hateful, I think, toward black people." Well, maybe -- but only in the way that The Simpsons is hateful toward small-town (bright-yellow) white people or The Flintstones demeaned cavemen. Straitened circumstances are, after all, the very stuff of comedy. The show has some of the down-at-the-heels knockabout charm of Sanford and Son and Good Times, while Murphy's spirited, perfectly timed readings owe something to Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford and to Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, TV's original tenement dweller. (I hear a little Sherman Hemsley in there too.) And with its expressive animation, painstakingly distressed sets and lovingly rendered squalor, including specially blown miniature bottles of 40-ounce malt liquor, the show is quite beautiful to watch.
Cartoons and cartoon characters, which may be stretched and squashed and endlessly abused, are by nature well-fitted to satire and the exaggerated embodiment of abstract ideas. In UPN's Dilbert, based upon Scott Adams' phenomenally popular bureaudystopic comic strip, the characters are not so much characters as apertures through which to extrude commentary on the absurdities of big business and the petty trials of office life. The animated version translates the comic's crude yet inexpressive artwork faithfully to the screen, and though some attempt has been made to lively up the program with explosions and other cartoon tropes, Dilbert and Dogbert and their friends and enemies, even while voiced by the gifted likes of Daniel Stern, Chris Elliott and Kathy Griffin, are somewhat short on personality -- which may be appropriate for a show about people bored out of their skulls, and may serve the show's more Brechtian purposes, but hurts the jokes. I do admit to having never quite grokked the appeal of Adams' sad-sack salaryman, a kind of cross between Charlie Brown and Josef K.; perhaps it's because I work at home (where one has only oneself to blame) or perhaps it's because, a zillion fans to the contrary, Dilbert, on the page, on the screen, isn't all that funny. Which is not to say it isn't "true." There is something to say about the purgatory of the workplace, but, personally, I only need to hear it once. I leave this one to you who require it.
DARE TO COMPETE: The Struggle of Women in Sports| HBO | Premieres Monday, March 8, 10 p.m.
PRIVATE DICKS: Men Exposed | HBO | Premieres Monday, March 15, 11 p.m.
DILBERT | UPN | Mondays, 8 p.m.
THE PJ's | Fox | Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1999 and 2011