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Smithsonian Channel

Should You Get On The Case With Sports Detectives?

Smithsonian Channel gamely blends History's Mysteries, Catfish, and 30 For 30.

What is this thing?

Former FBI agent and private investigator Kevin Barrows teams with sports reporter Lauren Gardner to track down legendary artifacts of sport: Jim Brown's NFL championship ring, a saddle once "worn" by Secretariat, the Wilt Chamberlain 100-point-game ball, and so on.

So, kind of a blend of History's Mysteries, American Pickers, and 30 For 30.

When is it on?

Sundays at 9 PM on the Smithsonian Channel.

Why now?

Smithsonian has busted out some pretty impressive documentary series in the last year, like The Missing Evidence and Major League Legends -- so I imagine Sports Detectives seemed like a logical extension of, well, both those properties. Plus, the premiere of the docu series is about the hunt for the Jim Craig "Miracle On Ice" flag from the 1980 winter Olympics, and it's the hockey playoffs right now.

What's its pedigree?

Executive producer Brian Biegel had some success in the genre with his feature documentary, Miracle Ball (...fine: hee), about tracking down the Bobby Thomson home run ball. The parent company, Left/Right, is behind Inside The American Mob, Showtime's The Circus and This American Life, and others.

...And?

I like Smithsonian's attitude towards these sorts of subjects, namely a sort of "why commit to a series when half of cable subscribers don't even know where we are on the dial; let's try 5-8 eps" thing that gives the creators a little more freedom to decide just how much time to spend on a given subject or concept. That said, Sports Detectives strikes me as better suited to a long-form article than to an hour-long show or shows. The kind of detective work these "cases" require doesn't necessarily lend itself to the visual medium (see: all the officious typing you see cops doing on shows like Disappeared).

The iconic items being detected may not have universal appeal each time, either. I like hockey, I agree that that flag is an icon, but I didn't feel much of a connection to the material, and often Gardner's in the position of straining to underline a piece of equipment's significance or having to narrate what we should feel. She's not annoying or anything; I just don't think it requires two hosts, or quite as much repetition around the ad breaks.

...But?

It's the Smithsonian Channel; they tend to get good materials and assets, and the build of the premiere is solid. It's really nice-looking.

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And the first half dragged a bit for me, but by the end, I'd gotten sucked in by the alleys the search went down. The producers know how to keep things moving but without succumbing to too many expected edit beats.

...So?

It's a perfectly capable and mildly compelling show that I nevertheless have probably seen my fill of, but it's also a very solid parental-common-denominator show you can watch with older family members and not want to gargle bees -- and it's got memorabilia from a sport for everyone, probably.

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