The universes are expanding. The cinematic universes, I mean. Disney+ got off to a slow start with its original content rollout, relying largely, in its first year of existence, on the streaming sphere’s most voluminous archive of children’s entertainment, a few no-brainer expansions of popular brands (the Muppets, High School Musical), several mildly interesting unscripted series and, for the grown-ups as well as the kids, two seasons of Baby Yoda. Then, in December, Disney announced plans to ramp up its TV production, stocking its digital shelves with some 50 new Marvel, Star Wars, Disney and Pixar series over the next few years. So far in 2021, we’ve seen two major Marvel debuts—WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—on top of the perfectly decent Mighty Ducks sequel Game Changers. And yet, my favorite new Disney+ show isn’t part of any franchise.
Big Shot, premiering April 16, stars John Stamos as Marvyn Korn, a wildly successful but notoriously temperamental college basketball coach whose NCAA career comes to an abrupt halt following an ugly chair-throwing incident. With no other employment prospects, Marvyn’s agent talks him into accepting a job at an exclusive girls’ private school in California. Not only does the gig take him thousands of miles away from his own teenage daughter, Emma (Sophia Mitri Schloss of Amazon’s The Kicks), who lives with her mom on the East Coast; it also requires that he control his anger. “Coaches here are not just coaches,” Marvyn’s skeptical new boss, played by the wonderful Community alum Yvette Nicole Brown, informs him. “They’re teachers. They’re expected to be role models.”
Though it isn’t an expansion of any existing cinematic universe, many of the elements here are pretty familiar: a losing team, a parent-child relationship in need of repair, a grizzled coach who needs the experience of working with fresh-faced kids even more than those kids need him. But you don’t have to rewrite the playbook to craft a satisfying sports drama with something to offer viewers of all ages. Creators David E. Kelley (who is apparently quite fond of “big” titles these days, from Big Little Lies to Big Sky) and Dean Lorey clearly were not trying to make the next Friday Night Lights. What they came up with instead is a modest, lighthearted, comfortingly familiar show that feels more current and less saccharine than most similar Disney titles.
The charismatic cast certainly helps. Stamos may never win an Oscar, but he’s a reliably likable TV presence who makes it easy to root for a high-strung bully who’s trying to rebuild his life. (Watching the actor flip out in the show’s cold open, it struck me that Andrew Cuomo would be lucky to see Stamos play him in a biopic.) The young players are just as endearing and well cast. Louise (Nell Verlaque) is the team’s mouthy star, whose superrich dad Larry (Michael Trucco, who also shared the screen with Stamos in Fox’s short-lived Grandfathered) financed Marvyn’s position in hopes of getting his daughter recruited for a Division I squad. My favorite performance in the three episodes provided for review was Tiana Le’s (No Good Nick) turn as Destiny, who forms a bond with Marvyn after she confronts him for making an insensitive comment about her weight.
Kelley and Lorey smartly balance elements that will appeal to teens and adults alike, avoiding too many twee moments without going over the heads of the tweens who’ve historically been the core audience for most live-action Disney shows. Marvyn gets some believable foils in the snooty, overprotective teachers who don’t trust a notorious angry jock around their precious girls, as well as in Larry, a high-powered helicopter parent who assumes he’s bought the loyalty of the surprisingly principled new coach. There’s even a refreshingly age-appropriate, if not especially distinctive, potential love interest in the team’s assistant coach, Holly (Jessalyn Sarah Gilsig from Glee). The girls have their own conflicts, crushes and cliques.
Out of all Big Shot’s small pleasures, the one I appreciate most is its generous approach to character development. The show could have forced its narrative into any number of convenient contemporary frames, casting Marvyn as a victim of cancel culture or a prime example of toxic masculinity or a tough-talking boomer ready to whip some Gen Z snowflakes into shape (one already-dated trigger warning joke in the premiere notwithstanding). Instead, it does the increasingly rare work of showing us characters who slowly improve themselves, as players and as people, by engaging in good faith with other flawed but ultimately well-intentioned characters. More of this, and fewer franchise special-effects spectacles, please.