HBO’s State of Play, Season Two, Episode One – The Science of Happiness

Mockingbird favorite Peter Berg (creator, NBC’s Friday Night Lights series, co-creator HBO’s The Leftovers) is […]

Howie Espenshied / 11.21.14

tikistrahMockingbird favorite Peter Berg (creator, NBC’s Friday Night Lights series, co-creator HBO’s The Leftovers) is back with another season of State of Play.  This season will be a four-part documentary series that goes behind the scenes of the “football life”. In episode one, “Happiness”, Berg features three prominent NFL players and how they have struggled to find happiness after their professional football careers. Berg also interviews a number of high profile psychologists who break down the “science” of happiness.

Berg’s results are mixed. Happiness in a post-NFL life is achieved (according to Berg’s panel of professionals) by finding a combination of community, accomplishment, and purpose in a life that has previously found its happiness in the community, accomplishment, and purpose which come from being a vital part of an NFL team.  All three former players profiled (Brett Favre, Tiki Barber, and Wayne Chrebet) make it clear that when they left the league, they left their identity and sense of self behind.  The expert panel of psychologists tell us, scientifically, why this happens. The dopamine hormone (associated with “pleasure”) releases in the brain as a result of the positive stimuli that come from experiences like running out of a tunnel to be embraced by 70,000 loudly affirming fans, or from working with a team to execute a game winning drive. Then, when the NFL career ends, the player no longer experiences dopamine release at a level they are accustomed to, so they are left with a sense of lost identity and fading purpose. Parallels to professions like doctor, soldier, and construction worker are briefly given lip service – inferring that people who leave these professions behind can experience a similar sense of loss.

I was excited about seeing season two. Season one had some great episodes, the best being one that examined the effects of pushing our kids to excel in sports. Season two is Peter Berg and football. That’s a peanut butter/chocolate level combination, right? Unfortunately, so far, no. The episode wasn’t as compelling as the behind-the-scenes profiles I’ve come to love on HBO’s Real Sports and Showtime’s 60 Minute Sports. If anything, it feels like a less insightful knockoff version of those two excellent sports docu-news shows. Berg just doesn’t bring anything new to the table that we didn’t already know or expect to be true about the struggle that the ex-NFL player goes through to recapture and reconstruct an identity. Further, sitting and listening to ivy-league trained experts attempt to define and explain happiness objectively was far less interesting and far less convincing than reading on the pages of Mockingbird about the notions of happiness and joy and how they’re achieved in the ways we “play”.

In the three episodes remaining, State of Play will do segments on ex-players trying to find some sense of a normal life after catastrophic injuries, on how the NFL is trying to re-invent itself and shed the modern-day gladiator tag, and on NFL wives. Berg is not off to a great start, but the episodes to come promise to be worth a look. I will put some thoughts on these coming episodes in the comments thread on this post. So join me if you’d like in watching to see if Berg can capture some magic here.  In the meantime, you can enjoy a wonderful Friday Night Lights downward trajectory fix by revisiting this classic Glee vs. FNL Mockingbird post from DZ.