It's hard to watch "Nimrod Nation," the new documentary series on the Sundance Channel, without thinking of "Friday Night Lights," NBC's lovely drama about football in rural Texas. Both shows focus on the extra meaning high school sports can hold in a small town, the way weekly games become pressure points for teenagers and adults. The series even share a framing device: a local radio announcer, establishing the rhythms of daily life.
In the eight-part "Nimrod Nation," that rhythm has a lot to do with the weather: How many feet of snow are on the ground, and will it break above freezing? This is life in Watersmeet, Mich., a small town in the state's remote Upper Peninsula, where the high-school basketball team, the Watersmeet Nimrods, occupies more than its share of civic pride. TV viewers might remember the town from a series of 2004 commercials for ESPN, which poked good-natured fun at small-town characters and the odd name of the team (in some circles, it means "hunters"). Those ads were directed by Brett Morgen - who co-directed the acclaimed feature documentary "The Kid Stays in The Picture" - and they inspired him to return.
As in "Friday Night Lights," what Morgen offers here is a story less about basketball than about the nature of fandom and the forces that keep people near home. When the old men gather at the local pizza place and refer to the Nimrods as "us," they have good reason: Most of them played basketball here 40 or 50 years ago, and never left. "We're from the UP," one of them explains. "We're You-pers. We like the woods."
The Northwoods are truly beautiful - though, boy, do they look cold - and the scenes here, of landscapes and people, are lovingly shot. Every once in a while, though, you get the slightly unsettling feeling that the city kids have come to town to gawk. The series takes a little too much time establishing the fact that people hunt. And the score is so epic, in a Ken Burns way, that it borders on heavy-handed. (On the other hand, I've seldom felt as tense as I did watching a young man, urged on by the older folks, try to slaughter a pig with a handgun.)
But when the subject turns to high school basketball, the themes quickly become universal: How do you please fans, inspire players, assuage their parents, win? These tasks fall to Nimrods coach George Peterson III, who also functions as the school's principal, athletic director, and occasional second-grade substitute teacher.
At first, Peterson comes off as supremely even-keeled, the Midwestern polar opposite of the stereotypical coach. In his fire-'em-up speech before the opening game, he urges his players to "just play Nimrod basketball and you guys will be fine."
Peterson can be tough, especially on his son George IV, who plays on the team as a guard. During one game, he benches young George for a bit, snapping, "Let me know when you want to play ball. Then you can play." The boy's mother confesses that she can't stand to sit too close to the bench during games. But other parents accuse Peterson of special treatment. When George IV gets his picture in the paper for scoring his 1,000th point, the mother of a Native American teammate questions why her son didn't get the same acclaim, and wonders if racism is at play.
"Nimrod Nation" spends time with the locals as they chew over the issue, and that room for contemplation is what gives the series weight. The subject veers from the basketball court to a host of social and political issues, from teen pregnancy to a quixotic fight to stop development on a nearby lake. The townspeople come together and pull apart, but they always return to the Nimrods. Local sports are social glue, no matter where you are.