Since the current writers strike was first bruited, the prospect of more reality TV has been held out to the public like a threat -- coal in the stocking at Christmas, the boogeyman waiting in the closet. People watch a lot of reality TV as it is, but I suspect that even among its most ardent fans there are many who sense there is something not quite right about it, something not . . . real. It's good for sensation and sentiment but not for anything resembling the dispassionately considered truth.
It sometimes feels as if all this unreal reality, fast and cheap as it is to make, will leave no room for more considered, delicately rendered representations of the world. But the answer to that, as embodied by Brett Morgen's eight-part, four-hour "Nimrod Nation" (which begins tonight on the Sundance Channel), is "Not yet."
The series tracks a season in the life of the Watersmeet Nimrods, a small-town basketball team in far-northern Michigan that in 2004 was featured in an ad that Morgen ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") directed for ESPN. The spot turned them briefly into celebrities -- the team appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," and Watersmeet Township School sold more than half a million dollars' worth of Nimrod-branded apparel to the wider world. But none of that is mentioned here, and it would be beside the point anyway. The team is the focus, but the community is the subject, and a little notoriety does not seem to have changed it.
It is a sweet film, beautifully shot, with an interest in and sensitivity to light and air, to bodies in space and in motion, to landscape and in detail that can arguably be called love. Where reality TV invites you to judge, "Nimrod Nation" merely asks you to look. You don't have to like sports particularly -- I can say that as one who does not -- to go under its spell.
The world it presents, relentlessly sub-zero and covered in white and silence, is at once harsh and enchanted. "This is heaven," says one resident, out ice fishing in 30-below weather, even as another, much younger, dreams of getting out: "I want to be in a half-decent, warm place," she declares. (She wants to go to Wisconsin.)
Like David Sutherland's "Country Boys" or Frederick Wiseman's "Belfast, Maine," it is long, unhurried and set in the sort of out-of-the-way, less-than-affluent place that TV typically romanticizes or demeans but rarely gets right, when it bothers at all. "Men in Trees" borrows a bit of the climate, and "Friday Night Lights" approaches similar subject matter; yet for all that "Lights" attempts to stay real, it still succumbs to fits of melodrama and fills the screen with model-hot kids mostly too old for their roles. (The kids of "Nimrod Nation" are beautiful too, but in the way that kids just naturally are.) In Hollywood, someone who looks and talks like Nimrod coach (and high school principal) George Peterson III would never be cast as himself, unless for comic effect.
Of course, this is not necessarily the last word on Watersmeet -- the town may have fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, but that's still at least 1,400 more than appear here in any significant way. Those we do see are seemingly untouched by modern media and distractions: Instead, we see them hunting, fishing, gathered at bonfires, hanging out on the ice, rehearsing a school play. (I would have liked to have seen more of that, personally, and less hunting, slaughtering and butchering -- sensitive viewers be warned.)
As with the ice fishers of "Nimrod Nation," documentary filmmaking takes patience; you have to let the story come to you. And these are not stories as such, with beginnings and ends, but slices of life within a sliver of time. There are crises -- a teenage pregnancy, tension over the perceived slight of a Native American player, the threat of development -- but the film is more about continuity than conflict: Morgen takes as his Greek chorus a pack of senior citizens, gathered in a local diner, who discuss the team and its young players, who have themselves been playing basketball together as long as they can remember.
Where: Sundance Channel
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)