"Hard Knocks," the HBO reality show that follows an NFL team through training camp, is in its eighth season (over a 13-year span), but I hadn't seen an episode until last week. If an excuse is needed, here are two: I used to work nights, and I didn't get HBO.

This season's show features the Cincinnati Bengals, the second time in the past five years the Bengals have been the series' focus, a cause of mild concern for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who told NFL.com he wanted a better mix of teams and suggested "some kind of formal rotation."

Ah, the good commish apparently above all else seeks parity, an even playing field even in the wacky field of reality television.

What? The Bengals aren't America's Team?

The 49ers, by the way, are one of several teams that declined HBO's invitation to be the stars of "Hard Knocks" this year. Make of that what you will, but the sentiment here is: Good for them. Talk about a potential needless distraction.

This latecomer's first reaction to "Hard Knocks"? A flashback to October 1960, when CBS's "The Twentieth Century," a weekly news/feature documentary series narrated by Walter Cronkite, opened its fourth season with "The Violent World of Sam Huff." The broadcast was technologically and thematically groundbreaking, further boosting pro football's recent ascension as it bid to become the nation's most popular spectator sport, and giving it significant clout as it transcended a mere game and took early steps toward becoming society's secular subject of Sunday worship.

The fearsome New York Giants defense at that time featured Huff, a middle linebacker who already had vaulted into the national consciousness a year earlier by being the first athlete to grace the cover of Time magazine. In "Violent World," Huff was wired for sound during practices and an exhibition game, giving the audience a uniquely visceral experience.

"Hard Knocks" continues that innovation, and then some. Last week, the so-called Oklahoma drill, in which Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis assigns offensive and defensive players to go one-on-one in what looks like an armored version of sumo wrestling, was about as primal as football gets.

First-round draft pick Tyler Eifert, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end, running routes with the power and grace of a ballet dancer, underscored the inherent physical beauty of the game. Watching 5-foot-9 second-round pick Giovanni Bernard zig-zag untouched through waves of defenders as if playing flag football served as a thrilling reminder that the sport isn't necessarily the exclusive domain of pituitary freaks, musclebound monsters and the morbidly obese.

And seeing Larry Black, a guileless undrafted defensive lineman, bawling on his cell phone as he tells his family he's been seriously injured and is on his way to a hospital, is gut-wrenching.

So, whatever else "Hard Knocks" is, it's also a vivid slice of compelling documentary television.


High-profile linebacker James Harrison's on-camera (and post-episode) snit fits over what he considers the intrusiveness and unworthiness of HBO's cameras pretty much guaranteed he'll attract even more attention.

The bleeping out of profanity in "Hard Knocks" seems absurdly puritanical. This is HBO, after all. Viewers are used to hearing f-bombs and all variety of foul language. Golly gee whiz, it's a show about pro football players, not a church choir.

Reliance on slow motion and occasional use of manipulative music drain some of the naturalness one assumes "Hard Knocks" is going for. A musical score used for dramatic effect in a highlights film is understandable, and often brilliantly effective.

But in a so-called reality show? Makes one wonder where the musicians are hiding. Makes one recall the scene in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" in which the camera pans and we can see an orchestra pushing the whole production into extreme farce. And in "Hard Knocks," when the soundtrack switches to hip-hop, it's easy to recall Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday," in which such indulgences added an artistic flourish to the director's subjective view of football. In a reality show, it seems, well, unreal.

Then there's the narrator of "Hard Knocks." Liev Schreiber is a fine actor who has provided first-rate voice-over to several acclaimed documentaries on HBO and PBS. But his theatrically subdued, importunate tone when advising fantasy league players to carefully examine the Bengals' roster or proclaiming "the Bengals don't need Andy Dalton to be a superhero, they need him to be a champion" seem as unscripted and reality-based as ex-Bengals QB Carson Palmer's ad for Morrell sausages back in 2007.

Robert Rubino can be reached at RobertoRubino@comcast.net.