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What to Expect From All or Nothing: Maple Leafs

It won’t be all. It might be nothing.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Amazon Prime’s video docuseries All or Nothing: Maple Leafs drops on October 1, ready for you to binge-watch. Docuseries isn’t even a real word, though, so what should we expect from this show filmed during the weirdest Maple Leafs season ever when we already know the ending?

Note: all the media have received advance copies and have published articles ranging from episode summaries to other, more (or less) critical reviews.

I watched all of the 2018 edition that covered the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team, quite a bit of last year’s entry on Tottenham Hotspur (a soccer club in London, England), and some bits of other series to answer that.

I’m left one one question: What are these shows about? I’m not really sure they are, in fact, about anything. Defence wins games was the most significant message in both All Blacks and Tottenham. The coach is the real star was very much the point of Tottenham and to a lesser extent All Blacks. From the teaser trailer, it seems we’re going to be treated to some Sheldon Keefe histrionics in Maple Leafs. The cinematography itself is a star, particularly in All Blacks, where the field-side camera work is stunning, and the in-your-face brutality and energy of rugby took centre stage.

That said, this show is, in a very real way, boring as hell. In the same way a hockey season is, where there are periods, games, weeks, January, where it all seems so pointless and a slog. Maybe that is the point.

The first thing you should know about All of Nothing is that it isn’t “unprecedented access” in a meaningful way. It’s not reality TV in the manner of shows that erroneously call themselves unscripted, either. What a show like the Bachelor does, where they take a similar pile of video vérité footage and craft it into a narrative arc with cliffhangers and hooks to bring you back for the next episode, is not what All or Nothing is. Nor is it a documentary taking candid film and presenting an unprocessed slice of truth as it unfolds.

This series is something else entirely that adds up to PR, even if it’s trying to look like something classier. The rhythm of a season of professional sports doesn’t give you a nice narrative arc like Kurt Vonnegut can describe with a line graph.

The narrative arc of sports is a grind. The All Blacks, as they do, won a lot — sometimes in stunning blowouts where the other team looked like fools — and yet the end of the series left me with a story of a grind. Maybe that’s the point of this series. To remind us that sports don’t conform to narrative logic, and we won’t get an ending up there in the happiness zone of the upper right of Vonnegut’s chart. You might just get despair.

I hope that’s not shocking news to you.

Given that, it’s not quite as absurd as it seemed at first to do a series about the Maple Leafs finding an even more ridiculous way to implode into that despair.

The standard ingredient of this series, from what I’ve seen of it, is a story centred on a very few members of the team, narrated by a local celebrity in a very lowkey way. Tom Hardy and Taika Waititi did the honours for the two I watched most of.

The coach takes centre stage in episode one, and gradually, you will meet some of the players — never all of them. But, of course, you already know them in some way, but you won’t get much more familiar with them from this show. You will see a few quick glimpses of family life from someone old enough and mature enough to have the right sort of family. John Tavares, we can assume. Maybe Jake Muzzin and all those kids and dogs.

Relief from the game drama comes from the boys being boys a little — a very little, surprisingly. You’ll see a set piece where someone, preferably a player from a disadvantaged background, will visit some similarly poor kids and talk about making smart choices in life. These brief glimpses of off-field activity, varnished with a humanizing gloss, punctuate long, carefully edited game montages that reveal if that stirring coach’s speech did the trick or not.

The media plays a role, depending on the sport and how much verbal sparring there is to show. The most manipulative technique used in the series is radio comments layered over scenes of family life of the players, implying they’re listening to this in their cars or in the living room, when of course they aren’t. José Mourinho saying “fuck off” and turning it off was a highlight of the Tottenham series.

What’s missing is a much longer list. You won’t see anyone truly dissatisfied with the team. Bright flares of temper are allowed, simmering resentment isn’t. Unhappiness has to be confined to the moment right after a loss, and no player is ever really at fault, even for his mistakes. The makeup scene comes quickly.

There is no villain in the piece, is the thing that makes it all a little boring. Even the other teams are barely there, background blurs of players in various colours of jerseys. It’s very inside the team bubble in a way that might even be realistic, but the outside world doesn’t exist.

No one will talk about race very much. There was one passing remark from an All Black about his role as mentor to younger Polynesian players, and the Maori players sometimes said they are Maori, but the viewer sees the racial sorting of the white players together over there, with the Maori and Polynesians over here, unremarked upon. The Leafs have been so vocal, clumsily at times, about issues like this, I wonder if they would want to be seen as oblivious.

Sonny Bill Williams, a sort of rugby Tom Wilson, who almost played in Toronto for the Wolfpack, is a featured player in the All Blacks. SBW has been open in discussing his conversion to Islam and what the practice of his religion means to his life, what it gives him, how it centres him, and yet you won’t learn that on this TV series. He is an intensely charismatic person, and for me, at least, kept the All Blacks show interesting, but I learned more about him in 10 minutes of google stalking than I did this all access series. I also learned the truth about the player suffering from “vertigo” who took a break from the game.

The Tottenham series breaks from the pattern a little by focusing too much on José Mourinho and leaving the players to fade into the background, as an undifferentiated and fairly dull group of fellows in white set against the ever-changing colourful background. He is also a charismatic figure, but wears you out even if you have no preconceived take on him. To be fair, the Tottenham players were boring. Well, I find soccer very boring in all ways.

The game footage is surprisingly uninspiring for a non-fan of the team or the sport, even though it is mostly beautifully filmed. The All Blacks series was more fun because rugby films well, and the speed of a scoring play done on a run is like watching a breakaway goal — see, I don’t even know what that’s called, because the only time the show explained anything was to clear up confusion over the unique New Zealander terms for things. The show assumes you know the sport. I’m at a loss to imagine the Leafs as the only named characters in a series about hockey that leaves those other teams we all know perfectly well as a blur. Connor McDavid is hardly background material. How do you show a Leafs-Oilers game and leave him unremarked upon? I assume fans of Spurs felt that way sometimes about the other soccer teams anonymously beating them in various episodes.

The only time the other team rose above background blur for me was when they chose to show the All Blacks doing the Haka before a match in South Africa. The Springboks receive the Haka in the most intense way of any team shown. You can see them take that energy and store it up for the game, and they became a character for that brief moment. The potential exists, sorry to say, for the Montreal Canadiens to become the only other character in the story of the Leafs.

The filmmakers have some other challenges with the Maple Leafs series. They’ve never done an indoor sport before, and while they’ve done American football, and dealt with obscured faces in-game, the speed of hockey and the complexity of the game is more like rugby than any other sport they’ve filmed before. I don’t expect the camera work that made the All Blacks visually stunning to be as good, however.

One other thing, of course, is the lack of fans. In the Tottenham series, when they got to the point where the stands were empty in 2020, they tried a device of fans at home or in the pub, and it was very, very clumsy. A bit too obviously fake and not a good punctuation to the action.

On the bright side, the NHL’s suit fetish means it won’t be five hours of guys in track suits looking like overgrown teenagers lounging around after school. Once out of the suit parade, no one on earth can be as deliberately dull as NHL players, however. The most aesthetically correct choice for narrator would have been William Nylander in his interview monotone. I mean... Except they went with the cliché choice of Will Arnett, so I’ll have to imagine how good it could have been. Obviously, uh, I mean, uh....

The series should be fully available on Prime on October 1, ready to show us what we already know, while the early access media have already told you how to feel about it.