Big-time college football represents such a uniquely American confluence of violence, money, masculinity, race, and class that, if it didn't exist, some enterprising writer would have to make it up. Dana Yeaton's new Redshirts delves into the stew with the eye of an anthropologist and the ear of a documentarian, portraying the plight of the athlete and those around him as almost entirely constricted by the inexorable needs of a ruthless machine needing to be constantly fed.
The action takes place at the fictional Tennessee Southern, where four young men are trying to break into the team's starting backfield in order to chase dreams of gladiatorial glory. The fulcrum is Dante (James T. Alfred), brash and cocky with the standard dreams of NFL stardom and a subsequent sinecure in the broadcasting booth after retirement.
Naturally, things don't go as planned. Working on a paper for an English prof (Regina Marie Williams) who disapproves of the gridiron, the men collude and end up producing work that reeks of collaboration. When confronted, the four circle their wagons, much to the chagrin of the earnest Jahzeel (Cedric Mays), a player who actually evinces a shred of intellectual curiosity and a crush on tutor Tori (Kimberly Gilbert).
Before long, their coach (James Craven) intercedes on their behalf, but Williams's character isn't having it—in a gentle Southern twang, she decries all of the privileges and benefits the athletes take for granted (and pretty soon is fielding threats on her answering machine at home). Meanwhile, Dante becomes increasingly emboldened, sensing the balance of power shifting in his favor and hoping the university will want to avoid a scandal and hush things up.
Yeaton comes at this thing from about every possible angle, feeding speeches into his characters' mouths to flesh out their conflicting agendas and motivations. As a result, the show at times works as an examination of social reality, but stalls out as drama. Having Dante break frequently from the action to launch into rap-styled explication doesn't help matters much, and it lends a suspicion that the action can't speak for itself.
By the second act, running back Curtis (Ahanti Young) is walking about zombie-like while trying to hide a concussion (getting a few unintentional laughs in the process), and fate dangles a tantalizing possibility of redemption. It's hard not to feel sympathy for just about everyone involved (even the coach, as Craven lends a note of steely decency to a largely self-motivated character), even if the action feels cluttered and labored as the goal line nears. The business Redshirts depicts is, after all, callous and brutal. Hate the game, as they say, not the player.