When I learned there was a new Netflix show that was about the early days of association football (aka soccer) made by the creator of “Downton Abbey,” I was hooked. I love soccer, and I liked “Downton Abbey” well enough, this was practically tailored to me.
Reader, I’m here to tell you the six-episode arc was disappointing. A show about two things I love — soccer and period dramas — went together like peanut butter and egg salad.
The show has a solid narrative at play: The aristocratic keepers of the game have to contend with the working class upstarts who want in, no matter the cost. The rich guys want the sport to stay amateur forever — a narrative familiar to current-day NCAA sports, but as rich guys, some of whom have no job whatsoever, they can afford to not work.
The poor guys, meanwhile, play on factory teams, with a pair of out-of-towners upending the system when a factory owner pays them to play on their team. These days, that sounds eminently reasonable, but at the time it was not only radical, it was strictly against the rules.
Again, the storyline sounds good, but it just didn’t click for me. The opening couple episodes set the scene, with the Scottish working-class star going to his first training session and saying “Lads, we need to pass the ball,” which probably did happen but sounds so wooden in this portrayal.
Meanwhile, there’s a scene where the working class people literally try to burn down a manor with torches and pitchforks, probably because, you know, they were being ground into dust by the industrial revolution and their appeals for humane treatment to the rich folks were falling on deaf ears.
The show has a multitude of daddy issues, from one father being, in our current parlance, a hater, while the other main character’s dad is a straight-up villain, who publicly cheers against his son for...reasons.
And while I appreciate the show incorporated women characters — as soccer players? Haha, good one — there was a b-plot in the middle of the run involving the women and an adoption racket that literally made me pause and wonder why that wasn’t the focus of the show, with soccer suddenly seeming like a total trifle to think about. I admit a show built around the politics of 19th-century motherhood may be a hard sell for a broad audience, but...no wait, “Call the Midwife” is literally this show based in the 1960s, actually they could have done it.
While “Downton Abbey” was an imperfect show, it did well to offer enough characters who were three-dimensional and who the audience could care about, even as imperfect people. Lady Mary was frankly a horrible snob with an acid tongue, but as the heiress counted on to continue the family line and keep the manor in the family, the pressure she was under was palpable. Likewise, Lord Grantham openly admitted he married his wife for her money and was himself absolutely terrible at managing money, but his earnestness left you wanting to root for him even though he didn’t have to work for anything at all.
In contrast, most of the upper-class characters in “The English Game” are practically twirling their mustaches constantly, aside from the hero character. And besides a drunk character and a soccer player who is a total try-hard, the working class people come across as the noble ones, except for that torches on the manor thing. The two-dimensional effect flattens everything and leaves little suspense in the plot itself.
Among the aspects I did like about the show, I think the two leads settled into their roles well over time. The first episode was a little off tonally, but they did make the best of a plot that wasn’t always up to the level. Of particular note, Edward Holcroft, who played Arthur Kinnaird, is on another Netflix period miniseries that is far superior, “Alias Grace.” You should check that one out.
I also did think the women did pretty well with not much to work with. The opening episode featured a wife who was basically, “Ugh, shut up about soccer,” but they built out her character and gave her some depth.
And in the tradition of “Shrimpie” from “Downton Abbey,” there is a grown man with a ridiculous nickname, “Monkey,” in this story (and he’s possibly the most sensible rich man of all), which is a nice touch.
Oh, and the uniforms. It was interesting to see the old-timey uniforms, with the Old Etonians wearing what looks like a henley and denim work pants like you would wear while painting a room in your place on a Sunday.
I realize most of us have a lot of time on our hands these days, and our streaming options may be burning through at an alarming pace, but would I recommend “The English Game”? Again, I feel like I should be the target audience for this, and I watched the whole thing and it was just so flat. I didn’t hate it, since I made it all the way through. But I wouldn’t recommend it, it just didn’t entertain like I was hoping.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.