After 35 years in the billiard business, it's clear I don't understand much about this sport. (This comes as a surprise to no one.)
Here I was all excited about seeing pool on television again. Watched the first seven episodes of "The Hustlers" on truTV and tried to envision how much great, free marketing the sport and industry was getting. Millions of dollars have been poured into billiards in the creation of this show, at a zero sum cost to the industry. More than a million people have watched the first episodes, and there's a pretty good chance a few of those viewers got the itch to grab a cue and play a little.
And I will admit, I've really enjoyed the series. The characters are engaging and the pool playing is fairly solid. The production quality is excellent.
Apparently, I don't have a clue.
A quick breeze through pool forums on various websites, Facebook pages and blogs quickly revealed that "The Hustlers" is nothing more than "Jerry Springer in a pool hall," and that the show "gives an untrue picture of the professional, artistic and technical game that pool is."
Others, including representatives of a production company that is trying to sell a similar product to a cable network, have attempted to beat down the show and have announced, with great glee, that it is destined for failure.
Programming alert to pool fans: You're not the target audience for this show!
Yes, "The Hustlers" is in the dreaded "reality TV" genre. It's not legitimate tournament pool. It's not a Martin Scorsese full-length feature film. It's not even typical poolroom action.
So what? Was Tom Cruise spinning his cue and dancing to "Werewolves of London" legit? Were the poolroom scenes, tournament scenes and shots in "The Color of Money" true to life?
I recall more than a little sniping among pool purists when that movie first came out as well. Thankfully, "The Color of Money" wasn't for pool players either, and the rest of the world raced to poolrooms, resulting in a massive spike for the entire industry.
What's more, every pool enthusiast should kneel down at the side of their beds each night and pray that "The Hustlers" continues to gain viewership and gets renewed for a second season, and beyond. Don't the people hawking other pool reality shows realize that a successful "Hustlers" is much more likely to spawn copycat shows on other networks than a failed pool show will? Every network has a food-related reality show. Every network has a talent-related reality show. Why? Networks glommed onto those ideas when the first iteration of each proved successful. How many networks jumped on the "Born in the Wild" wagon after that dismal failure? Any "Dating Naked" spinoffs out there?
Regardless of whether or not a pool fan loves "The Hustlers," he or she should be rooting for it to become a wild success. Why? Success generates new ideas - not to mention money. It drives people to play. At that point, the industry can work on changing the narrative if it deems that necessary.
Again, it's a matter of trying to get the billiard universe to pull in the same direction.
Not that the potential success of "The Hustlers" doesn't come with a modicum of trepidation. In the end, reality TV is about characters. "The Hustlers" simply uses pool as the vehicle for its stars. But we're all painfully aware that success can be life-changing for reality TV stars. Osbornes and Kardashians have become household names. What might success do to the show's colorful cast of characters?
Sure, there's concern that the characters could all get big heads, but in Mike Dechaine's case, is that even possible?
And what about the self-anointed "Godfather of Pool?" William Finnegan, the show's game-maker and controller of the imperious "List," already parades around Steinway like Don Corleone, expecting players and patrons alike to bow down and kiss his pinky ring. (Seriously, I'm not kidding. He made one of the players do this.) As a character, Finnegan is everybody's pal, but nobody's friend. During the course of a single episode, the bald ringleader changes allegiances more often than the Italian army, and he would sell out his grandmother if she dogged a few shots.
Don't even get me started on Amy and Ross! Every reality show needs a genuinely obnoxious couple, and "The Hustlers" has a doozy. With one hand on her hip and her head cocked at an angle, the red-headed Amy trash-talks, throws tantrums and generally leads her poor sap of a boyfriend around Steinway by the nose. I think I love Amy.
Of course, I can't imagine anyone would tire of seeing Jennifer Barretta grace another season of episodes.
And should a second season of "The Hustlers" get the green light, Steinway will have to hire Andy Frain to control the avalanche of pool players who will descend on New York hoping for a spot on the show. (Personally, I think if anyone deserves his own reality show, it's Alex Pagulayan!)
You see, it's not about who wins and who loses. It's not about whether the editing of each game is perfect. It's not about the death of poolroom etiquette. "The Hustlers" is about people. And these people play pool. Embrace it.