One of the things that makes Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth documentaries so compelling is that they aren’t fairy tales.
There is no sugar-coating. If the baby seal is savaged by the orca or the hippo dies gasping at the dried-up waterhole, its carcass torn apart by so many hyena, then that’s what we see. And we feel. There’s a fine Greek word for it: ‘Pathos’, which means the emotion of shared experience, of suffering, of empathy.
Wild Wests: Tales from Tiger Town (which starts its run of four episiodes on Fox Sports and Kayo on Monday at 7.30pm) is not Life On Earth, we can make that clear. And nor is it trying to be. It’s not even Life on Planet Leichhardt, not really.
But it is an entertaining hour about a footy club doing its best, to a point, to take footy fans into the fabled “inner sanctum” and, of course, failing in the main because we still only see what they want us to.
And maybe that’s fair enough. It’s their story and they can tell it how they like. But Wild Wests is also what it isn’t: a genuine, fly-on-the-wall documentary with the camera as ever-present, unflinching observer.
The club has ticked off on the content. Fox Sports has shone a lens on the footy club and there’s a filter on. Yes, they say “f***”, occasionally. But it’s still sanitised. It doesn’t document the club warts and all, as Michael Jordan’s Last Dance did.
There is plenty to like, however.
You can catch the Wests Tigers documentary on Foxtel and via streaming through Kayo Sports.
There is pathos for Tigers fans who will suffer, again, through three losses in the first four rounds. And it is entertaining.
In episode one we follow four games of rugby league from the perspective of coach, fan, CEO and trainer. There is emotional music as the club loses. There’s a heap of slo-mo. Players walk to the beach in Newcastle in slow-mo, kiss babies in slow-mo, shake hands and bro-hug in slow-mo. There’s focus on faces, blurred backgrounds. It looks good.
You see plenty you never have. In the Canberra game we see Michael Maguire riding the coach’s seat like a fan who can get on a walkie-talkie and tell the players stuff. When a Tigers player is injured the Raiders get on a roll and Maguire bellows: “Stop the game! Stop the f****** game!” He wants to get off. Canberra wins.
We hear Maguire’s pre-match pep talks, his post-match post-mortems. He is the star of episode one and appears the big man in the football club.
Yet the piece feels like a show-reel, an audition tape, even, for Maguire, who comes over as an earnest, try-hard, equal parts fun and stern uncle who doesn’t quite connect with the 20-something players in his charge.
The PR blurb says Wild Wests “follows every aspect of the Wests Tigers’ 2021 season – the triumphs and tears – taking viewers into the inner sanctum of the rugby league club … viewers will get never-before-seen, raw and unfiltered access to the highs and lows of a season that has challenged players, staff, and fans both on and off the field.”
True in part. Not in other parts. Wild Wests is not “unfiltered”. It’s the opposite. Camera on, there are no players taking shortcuts at training. There’s no gossip over coffee, blokes mildly sledging the coach, taking the piss. There’s no footage of them on the piss at Northies.
There’s a private dinner among the “leadership group” at some flash restaurant, coach, CEO and self-important types, sponsors or something, everyone stiff, aware of the camera.
There’s a piece about BJ Leilua being dropped to reserve grade. We don’t hear from BJ Leilua. We don’t hear from Luke Brooks whom it’s reported is being shopped to other clubs. There are conversations Maguire has with players that hit the cutting room floor. Commercial-in-confidence, all that.
Maybe it’s fair enough – it’s their story. And maybe all we can expect of Wild Wests is that it is what it is: a series ripe for mockumentary! Hugh Jackman could tuck a polo shirt into high pants and do Maguire. Glenn Robbins could do a ripper Ronnie Palmer. Eric Bana could channel “Poida” and do Justin Pascoe.
Game two we meet some fans. There’s cute kids. There’s a family day. A corporate fan of some description, Tim Triffit, says “Madge is an exceptional coach.” We see the Roosters rain tries at Leichhardt. We ride the game with Triffit and the McShane family in the outer.
“You know they’re doing their best … they’ll get there eventually,” says Father McShane. Brett Morris goes in for his hat-trick while he’s saying: “They’ve got to keep working hard on their games and as a team.”
Fans on the hill may have been fruitier and less kind. Too unkind – too real – for a corporate sports doco come member recruitment tool.
Game three in Newcastle and CEO Pascoe is the focus. “I’ve always been fairly casual in everything I do,” he tells us, dressed in a black T-shirt, calligraphic tattoos on the underside of his arm, the lead singer from Noiseworks doing Cool Dad From School.
Parra game it’s all Ronnie Palmer and we find out why we rarely hear from Ronnie Palmer. “I assist in the warm-up,” he says. “When the game starts I’m in a yellow shirt and assist wherever I can.” The Tigers lose again.
Yet it’s clear they’re having a crack. Or at least it’s clear they want you to believe they are. Wild Wests is in part an exercise to assure fans that the players care.
In the last scene Maguire gets close to teary when addressing the players in the shed. “The effort is f****** right,” he declares. “I want you to believe that.”
It’s a common theme. Maguire is trying to instil belief in his team. And Wests Tigers want fans to believe.
The unkind are now fermenting a gag about fairytales.
WILD WESTS: TALES FROM TIGER TOWN premieres Monday, July 19, at 7.30pm on Fox Sports and Kayo with episodes two and three on August 9 and 16 and episode four on August 30.