TV: The Shop

Only a guy who self-appointed himself as the king before he wins a championship could produce a show where he sits on a throne presiding over a heavily edited ceremony. LeBron James’ latest tv effort The Shop aired on HBO on Thursday August 28 at 11pm.

(Remember James’s We Are All Witnesses Nike campaign? The Shop picks up on that that passive viewer idea: you were not designed to participate in the building of LeBron James. You just get to watch it. Lucky us, right? Unlike Michael Jordan’s ad campaigns who sold us the inspiring possibility to Be Like Mike because after all “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes.”)

The Shop is the latest in ambient television up there with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Carpool Karaoke. Interestingly Seinfeld attributes the success of Comedians in Cars in part to movement; he says: “the show would be boring if it were just two people talking. That’s always boring. The car brings in movement. All great content and stories need movement and motion.”

As ambient television The Shop is different in that there is no movement (which is odd because the celebrity cast is paid to produce spectacle) rather it’s the same type of conversations but in many ways it doesn’t necessarily need to be on television because there’s no moving pictures. It could just as easily be a podcast recorded in a black barbershop.

(LeBron has such an uneasy relationship with spectacle. He’s refused to appear in the NBA’s dunk contest and over a 15 season plus carrer one of his greatest highlights is…a chase down block. As a producer he’s given us shows like Do or Dare, The Wall and The Machine. Even his endorsements like his Sprite commercials are not compelling Must See TV. Compare all that to Kobe and his scintillating NBA career (81 points!) plus his post-NBA tv work such as Detail and Dear Basketball for which he won an Oscar. It’s clear Kobe is comfortable fulfilling the harsh demands of the spotlight.)

The Shop cast features LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Snoop Dogg, Jon Stewart, Draymond Green, Jerrod Carmichael, Odell Beckham Jr., Vince Staples, Michael Bennett, Candace Parker and Alvin Kamara. Admittedly some of the names like the NFL players was a who? to me. So that’s the show’s setup…gather a handle of rich, famous established individuals who succeed against all the odds so that viewers can listen to em discuss the following:

The stress of scrutiny and how it evolves whether you are a high school basketball star or an upcoming stand-up comedian. In a way it seems to get worse as you become more successful because the challenge is to repeat your success; to prove you are not a fluke. Jon Stewart evokes the phrase “please let me stay.” A sort of pleading desperate negotiation. I never agreed with that; I never felt that.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s classic “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” makes way more sense; I choose that more often. There is an insecurity to “please let me stay” that I’m not willing to agree with. If you want to take on insecurity in your own life and in your own work (as some of The Shop’s cast have) then go for it but I’m damn good at what I do; anybody’s failure to notice that…to appreciate that is their problem not mine. As a general philosophy that’s not only rational it’s just logical. You make better choices in your work so your work is good…why wouldn’t you make better choices in your life so your life is good?

Which brings us to Draymond Green and his decision to appear…why is he here? I can’t stand this Get Along Gang incarnation of the NBA it makes for softer players and a weaker game. KD is one of the few players in the Jordan/Kobe mould who still wanna murder their opponents. I thought…Draymond Green was the same and yet here he is palling around with LeBron?

Despite that Green drops the gem of the episode: “Can LeBron ever come out and say, ‘I’m the best basketball player playing?'” Carter asked Green.

“I think you should say that.” Green responds. He then elaborated by giving a scintillating description of Michael Jordan: “Motherfuckers fucked with Mike because Mike was like, ‘I’m Mike with my hoop earring. Fuck all y’all, I’m here.’ And until he did that, that’s when he became the figurehead that he is. So many people shy away from that and that’s why they never reach their full potential.”

Draymond Green Is Right! “Fuck all y’all, I’m here” is what made Jordan so great while it’s crucial as a vicious declaration. There’s a profound humility in knowing who you are in the pantheon of elites as you recognize your astonishing achievements.”Fuck all y’all, I’m here” is so freeing because it places the burden back on the viewer, the critic, the fan: it’s your hang up not mine. At least until the game is over.

Yet before it’s over Jon Stewart talks about cheating the game; about knowing when to get out. It’s no longer just about the sacrifices to get to the position that you’re in; it is no longer about keeping and defending the position that you’re in…it’s that you must recognize when it is time to pack it all up. The Game Is Over.

In the NBA your legs start to go as Father Time claims you. In entertainment it’s a lot harder to just walk away but like the NBA you can (hopefully) do it on your own terms. On a live U2 version of The Fly Bono sings about the bright lights and how “it’s hard to walk away.” It’s hard to walk away…kudos for Stewart doing that with The Daily Show.

Continuing Draymond Green says “black people don’t know who they are; the reason that black people struggle is because we don’t know who we are.” And he’s right. I can’t speak for the black experience but in working with many people in different types of entertainment if you don’t know who you are you have little to no value. You have to know who you are: you have to clearly know your values before you go online otherwise you just get tempest-tossed. Not knowing who you are; not knowing your values is one of the reasons why social media so awful. It takes no courage to walk the sidewalk.

Which is why the idea of representation…that “we all need to stick together” is so bogus. No we don’t. Wisely Jon Stewart recognizes “when you start to believe that your resources are finite you begin to treat others as foes and rivals and enemies.” My issue is the gaps in talent…the whole cast of The Shop is accomplished yet not everybody who plays in the NBA or NFL or Hollywood is great…some are just ok; a lot suck. Why promote the suck?

I’m not willing to compromise and unleash and/or promote a weaker or less talented individual because “we decided” to stick together. That’s not fair to the individual to set him/her up for failure; it’s not fair to the marketplace and it’s not fair to pop culture and it’s not fair to fans who shouldn’t have to deal with a tepid talent. I respect pop culture (and my place and contributions to pop culture) far too much to be cavalier to blindly adopt a bulk widespread approach like “we all must stick together.” What we’re doing is sacred; it’s rare and it’s so fun. We’ve now gone full circle back to knowing your values. Long as I get to hand select the we in we stick together…I’m good and hopefully everybody else in our we is good too.

I recognize this a classic American contradiction where you can be the greatest and it’s still not good enough. Jon Stewart on Muhammad Ali admitted even The Champ’s greatness couldn’t insulate him (he did go to jail for his beliefs). We tend to focus on the individuals who failed to live up there potential…who got drafted high or came out with a really strong movie and just never eventually fulfilled their destiny and potential. It’s that “smart student keeps failing in school” thing: it really doesn’t make sense. It happens it just doesn’t make sense.

The reverse is often not discussed which is being great and not fulfilling your (high) expectations. The Golden State Warriors won 73 games but did not win a ring. That’s so painful. They deviated from the script.

In the end the expectations people have for you and for your career; the morals and the values that they assign to you (and to your career!) are not ones that you have to accept because of the fundamental fact you will always disappoint people. As an Entertainer your task is not to please everybody because that is impossible and more importantly it doesn’t make for good work. Freedom is more valuable than feedback.

Draymond Green astutely concludes: “Athletes don’t have a responsibility to speak up for nothing; you have a responsibility to speak up for what you believe in. Just because you’re an athlete and you have a certain platform that does not mean you have the responsibility to speak up for anything.” Word. This is 100% true even though it oddly goes counter to LeBron’s insistence he is an inspiration to the kids; the kids look up to him. They may indeed but Green’s comments are yet another vital link in Barkley’s potent I’m Not A Role Model:

Lastly Jerrod Carmichael talks about buttons…the n word being the biggest button ever and that’s what this show really is about…our buttons. Zenly he says “be cautious that you’re not triggered so easily that you disrupt your own life and well-being.”

The Shop will successfully push Twitter’s buttons and do well on social media but as it’s ambient television it’ll come and go with minimal impact. LeBron James’ career is still defined by rings not by speaking out, opening schools or co-creating shows like this. Keep your eyes on the prize. The 73rd season of the National Basketball Association season starts on October 16, 2018.

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Also published on Medium.

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