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The White Shadow: The Complete First Season

The acclaimed but short-lived CBS-TV drama The White Shadow (1978-81) adopted the underlying formula of the hit comedy "Welcome Back, Kotter" — an unorthodox white authority figure shepherds a diverse group of inner-city teenagers through their high school tribulations — but did so as an hour-long drama. While the series was abruptly canceled during its third season, it was a mainstay at he Emmy Awards for its unflinching, envelope-pushing approach to teen issues, and in many ways it helped shape the future of the television drama. Ken Howard stars as Kenny Reeves, an NBA journeyman hobbled by an injured knee and pondering early retirement when an old college basketball teammate offers him a head coaching job at a rough Los Angeles high school. Reeves is intrigued enough by the new challenge, and insecure about his other options, and thus takes a huge pay cut to wrangle the motley gang of undisciplined hoods on the Carver High School basketball team. While dated in some respects (mostly technical, like the end-of-episode freeze-frames and some wildly poor sound-effects editing during the game sequences), The White Shadow holds up to any contemporary teen drama with its natural style and aversion to sensationalism, even though its episode storylines read like a what's what of "very special" afterschool cautionary tales. Nonetheless, its antiquated, unpolitically correct abandon is refreshing, if occasionally shocking. In the first season, Reeves gets a crash course in social working, tackling his players' problems with poverty, alcoholism, gangs, pregnancy, and other forays into juvenile delinquency. While many of these subjects have been covered ad nauseam (and, in fact, are now obligatory plotlines for any teen series), in the 25 years since The White Shadow's freshman season, rarely have they been presented with so little hysteria, and, despite the show's distinct late-'70s style, are likely to still resonate with teens today. The series' weaknesses are its repetitive formula and occasional slips into corny sentimentality (the episodes dealing with a possibly gay player and an autistic student are preachy, smarmy, and laugh-out-loud cheesy), and its episodic, un-soapish nature results in a lack of the continuing story arcs that can really involve viewers. Howard is terrific as Reeves, playing a believably tough jock with a soft spot for trouble kids, and the teen(-ish) cast is bright and personable. Former child actor-turned-director Jackie Cooper won an Emmy for helming the pilot episode, and he found himself mentoring an aggressive crew of up-and-comers. The White Shadow was created by Bruce Paltrow, whose next series, "St. Elsewhere," would pioneer the quirky "dramedy" format still popular today, and other season episodes were written by future TV masterminds Steven Bochco (who later created "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue") and Joshua Brand ("Northern Exposure"). While few of the team cast members made notable acting careers, several of them are current heavyweights behind the camera, like Kevin Hooks (Thorpe), who has directed episodes of top series like "Lost," "24," "Alias," and "ER"; and Timothy Van Patten (Salami), who has directed more than a dozen episodes of "The Sopranos," as well as many of HBO's other acclaimed series, "Sex and the City," "Rome," "Deadwood," and "The Wire." Thomas Carter (Hayward) also has established himself as a director and producer of both TV ("Hack") and feature films (Coach Carter). Future TV stars Peter Horton, Dennis Haysbert, and Ernie Hudson all show up in bit parts.

Fox's four-disc The White Shadow: The Complete First Season includes all 15 episodes in acceptable full-screen transfers (1.33:1). Director Cooper and producer Mark Tinker offer a commentary on the pilot, while Howard and Van Patten comment on episode 1.12, "The Great White Dope." All offer great praise for the late Paltrow. Also included is the short featurette, "More than Basketball." Two dual-DVD slimline keep-cases in a paperboard sleeve.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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