Hard Knocks: summer’s best real-time reality series

Tonight, Hard Knocks concludes its eighth season, which has followed the Miami Dolphins and its new coach, Joe Philbin. Between the exceptional cinematography (that both NFL Films and HBO Sports are well-known for) and the extraordinary access, this is a series that is unquestionably summer’s best real-time reality TV program.

With its robotic surveillance cameras capturing a lot of the off-field action, the show has echoes of Big Brother (someone alert CBS’ lawyers!), especially because it is produced in real-time: Producers shoot 300 hours of footage every week, even on Mondays, though the show airs on Tuesdays.

Of course, that’s where the similarities end. This is both a documentary reality series and art. The attention to visual detail is so remarkable it’s hard to put into words, and the editing develops characters subtly but smartly, so that by the time players were being cut last week and in tears, it’s likely many viewers were, too.

What really works, though, is the access, from joking in the locker room to eavesdropping on contract negotiation phone calls. We see a lot, and while coaching staff and players are obviously aware they’re being filmed, they don’t seem conscious of it. It’s especially fascinating to contrast the scenes of press conferences to behind-the-scenes reality.

Because the show is in real-time, Chad Johnson’s arrest and firing from the Dolphins played out in the media, and then we got to see how it really happened on the show. His firing by Philbin was captured by the show’s cameras, and affect the team and its staff, it’s not because of producer manipulation. Producers observe and then edit the results, and it’s exceptional work that deserves an even wider audience.

It’s on HBO, but it’s not easy to watch especially if you don’t have HBO: While you can buy the Hard Knocks soundtrack, the series itself isn’t on DVD, and is even not on HBO Go. At least it repeats on NFL Network in the spring.

However, that the show itself is somewhat fleeting–here for six episodes, then gone, and sometimes not here at all–makes it even more special.

Hard Knocks: A

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.