In a year of overpriced sports document profiles, his HBO series about basketball’s greatest showman outlines where so many of these biopics get wrong.
“Shaq” knows what Shaq knows: In sports, the only true truth is what you see in front of you. On a field, on a pitch, in a record book, what you know for sure is the result. Everything else is stuff for a story.
There were many opportunities to create myths in the life of Shaquille O’Neal. From growing up in a military household, to high school breakthrough and college stardom, to a rollercoaster ride in the NBA Hall of Fame career, O’Neal has a wealth of stories for every chapter. Not all of them make it into “Shaq,” the four-part docu-series premiering on HBO this week, but you couldn’t ask for a better tour guide through a life that spans the worlds of television, movies, music, advertising and… more includes, yes, basketball.
Director Robert Alexander knows that it is not enough for a sports doctor to rely on just one charismatic central character. The best of them suit the person they are profiling and not the other way around. Rather than trying to use a one-size-fits-all model, “Shaq” approaches each of the four eras of his life – rise, glory, decline, and reinvention – with a completely unique style. The best example is the second episode, which punctuates each new conversation and introduction with comic book-style animations and speech bubbles, a marked contrast to the energetic and sedate chapters that support them.
There are as many sports documentaries that try to match theme and style as some people try to match songs with mood. The ESPN series “The Captain” has given Derek Jeter a stately, buttoned-up approach, because that’s how one would expect a media-savvy star-turned-manager to present himself in the same way one reflexively selects a moody underage-key ballad for Soundtrack of a rainy day. We know how all these things fit together.
Instead, “Shaq” recognizes that the personality and reach of the great Aristotle far transcended his storytelling. His interviews here have the polish he explains because he had a sergeant father and was a private media practitioner for years while in college. The timbre of O’Neal’s voice rarely changes, but Alexander is able to harness the special energy that accompanies every minute shift in emotional hues. O’Neal is dynamic enough to go from excitement to resentment to idiot simply by changing the size of his smile or the length of his pauses. “Shaq” is always willing to join him.
It’s an intriguing reversal of They Call Me Magic, Apple TV+’s Magic Johnson documentary series earlier this year. Throughout his college and NBA years, Johnson was notable for embracing his status as a media darling, more of a golden child than a court jester. More time has passed since his career ended — O’Neal’s rookie season came not long after Johnson’s last full season — so They Call Me Magic has a nostalgic haze. O’Neal’s career ended less than a decade ago – when he was still playing This cemented him as an early Twitter legend — making this project feel closer to a time capsule. O’Neal doesn’t seem wistful. If anything, he has the ability to make his own past seem much closer.
And it’s all reinforced by the idea that O’Neal was never known for shying away from the sensational. “Shaq” isn’t exactly the “F for fake” of sports documentary, but it does have that quick acknowledgment that it’s good story that’s what makes a good story. Oddly enough, that’s enough to give this series a more natural foundation than any other single-topic sports documentary series to come out in 2022 so far. “Shaq” leaves room for disagreements, alternate memories, and even the times when O’Neal used the exact same words to describe something in another interview decades ago. That somehow feels a lot closer to the truth.
Another way “Shaq” is emerging from the shadows of its peers is by striking a balance between targeting existing fans and having a down-to-earth explainer. There are enough little nuggets for those who know where to look and listen. (Perhaps the best example: “Shaq” includes audio of Ernie Johnson as a young sportscaster and footage of an on-court fight with Charles Barkley. Both would later become O’Neal’s deskmates on the TNT studio show Inside the NBA. .)” Shaq” only really dips his toe in the weeds on technique or triangle offense. But when it comes time to celebrate O’Neal’s championship success, Alexander opts for a more abstract, emotional depiction of the moment rather than just a series of red highlight clips.
Perhaps most importantly, “Shaq” shares O’Neal’s sense of humor. Speaking of his partying days as a younger player, a giant [REDACTED] flashes across the screen. Alexander adds sound effects to match O’Neal’s improvisation-worthy space work. No franchise has been dismissed like the Clippers here, when O’Neal casually dismisses them as “bums.” At one point, O’Neal calmly says, “One of my superpowers is that I can stop time” with the confidence of someone who has not only done it, but has done it many times.
Many viewers will likely be drawn to this document, which is curious about the relationship between O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, his Los Angeles Lakers championship teammate. Bryant’s death in 2020 means “Shaq” doesn’t quite get the full scope of her interpersonal rise and fall. But as The Captain demonstrated with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez (a similar case of Generation players whose partnership is fractured by public feuds in a shared locker room), even if you get both versions straight from the source, these things are ephemeral. “Shaq” is more effective by taking inspiration from its theme rather than appearing to serve it.
The other documentary-level insights here aren’t triple-underlined either. When O’Neal describes a time in his childhood in Germany early on, he prefaces it by saying, “I hate using that word ‘depression’.” He tells a story about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as if he give the audience an exclusivity. For him, a coach’s gift, a philosophy book, is something that leads to a self-imposed nickname and a new branding opportunity, all without turning to the pages. With so much already known about O’Neal as a basketball player, “Shaq” takes on a much more satisfying goal: the self-image of a master showman.
“Shaq” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on HBO, with new episodes also available to stream on HBO Max.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/shaq-review-hbo-documentary-1234784598/ ‘Shaq’ Review: HBO Documentary Is A Magnetic Sports Biography