Tune in Tonight: FX serves up ‘Clipped’ on Hulu

Blending sports and soap operas can be tricky. The audience for athletics sticks to games, while fans of melodrama can’t abide jock culture. This was certainly true of “Friday Night Lights,” a beautifully done and elegiac NBC series about Texas football culture that wowed critics and attracted few viewers. The HBO series “Winning Time” managed to generate comedy, mainly because of its effervescent star, John C. Reilly.

Now FX on Hulu offers “Clipped,” a tale of sports, power, infidelity, revenge and racism in the age of social media. Based on an outrageous true story captured on ESPN’s “30 for 30” podcast “The Sterling Affairs,” it recalls the desperate efforts to rescue the L.A. Clippers basketball franchise from its snakebit reputation and the behind-the-scenes scandals that almost overshadowed a quest for the championship.

Laurence Fishburne stars as Doc Rivers, a celebrated basketball coach who left the Boston Celtics, where winning was in the organization’s DNA, to try to turn the Clippers around. Long overshadowed by the crosstown Lakers, the city’s second basketball franchise is hobbled by its ownership, namely Donald Sterling (Ed O’Neill) and Shelly (Jacki Weaver), his wife and business partner of 60 years.

O’Neill has a blast as Sterling, a boorish and cheap older man with bad feet, dyed hair and a penchant for aggressive insensitivity. He has no idea of what it might mean for a proud Black man like Rivers to be told “I’m your owner!” by Sterling. Worse, Sterling is carrying on a flagrant fling with V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman), a shapely personal assistant who has talked Sterling into buying her a townhouse, an expensive car and other luxuries and who has the temerity to rub it all in Shelly’s face.

Sterling gives O’Neill yet another great role as the oblivious white baby boomer. After Ed Bundy (“Married With Children”) and Jay Pritchett (“Modern Family”), Sterling provides O’Neill a soft landing into near senility.

In some ways, Sterling is Pritchett with all the lovable characteristics removed. He’s short-tempered at best and coarse and caustic when crossed. His idea of a good time is to welcome Rivers and new team members with something called the “White Party,” where the Steely Dan is cranked up to 11 and everybody is forced to wear white sweaters.

Not to give too much away (about a well-documented true story), but when Shelly moves to oust V. from her husband’s orbit, the scorned gold digger releases secretly recorded conversations containing racial epithets and other unpleasantries to a social media ravenous for memes about the rich, powerful and horrible.

For a basketball story, there’s very little courtside action. And, after a decade or so of cancel culture, audiences may have tired of watching folks sent to the media guillotine. While O’Neill is well cast as the garish Sterling, too much of “Clipped” seems very on the nose. One can empathize with Rivers’ ambition and his exasperation at his boss’s obnoxious behavior, but in the end, there are too few characters to root for here.

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