Formats Unpacked: We Are The Champions
How a big budget approach to documenting our obsessions makes for essential viewing
Before we jump into this week’s format I wanted to mention a couple of things. Firstly, if you’re enjoying this newsletter and are interested in all forms of storytelling you may want to subscribe to the Storythings newsletter which goes out every Friday. Check out the archive first to see if it’s your kinda thing.
And secondly, if you’d like to be a contributor to Formats Unpacked just get in touch.
OK, this week sees the return of Storythings founder Matt Locke, whose previous unpackings include Grand Designs, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, One On One and 21/9.
Over to you Matt…
What's it called?
We Are The Champions (TV show)
What’s the format?
A TV series telling the story of six quirky competitive events - from cheese-rolling in the UK to dog dancing in Russia - and the passionate participants for whom this is their personal Olympics.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
We Are The Champions is the show we all really need right now. It’s been a terrible year, in which it feels like we’ve been repeatedly hit around the face with the worst aspects of humanity and culture. But as overwhelming as this year has been, there is still a little flickering ember that unites us all - our obsessions.
We’ve all got them, whether it’s a hobby, a collection, a fandom, or anything that gives us an excuse to hang out with other people. When our lives became circumscribed by the same four walls - or the same few screens - of lockdown, many of us leaned into our obsessions to give us structure and purpose. We also realised that these things that once felt peripheral are actually more satisfying and enriching than the things - like work, money or power - we’re told to measure ourselves by. Lockdown has been a horrible experience, but if there is one small light in the gloom, it’s that it's given us a chance to centre our lives around something other than the demands of late-stage capitalism.
I know how ridiculous that last paragraph might sound, but I think it’s true. Anything we do with passion has great value. Our forebears fought hard to give us leisure time through legislation for the eight-hour working day, and their campaign slogan was a motto we should still wear on our chests:
“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.”
I love how unspecific that last element is - eight hours for ‘what you will’. The fight for a shorter working day was about making sure we had time to indulge our obsessions, whatever they might be. Even if it is chasing a cheese down a hill, or teaching dogs how to dance. Especially if it’s teaching dogs how to dance.
We Are The Champions picks six of these obsessions and gives them the attention and grandeur they deserve. It’s a beautifully filmed and structured half-hour of TV, and it shows that the production company - Dirty Robber - has a background in sports documentaries. The show is cut from the same cloth as ESPN’s genre-defining 30 for 30 series, sharing the same technique of foregrounding not the action in the event, but the human stories of the participants.
Because this is what we connect with - we want to know why people have strange (and sometimes dangerous) obsessions. This is true whether they are millionaire athletes or twenty-somethings stuck in a rural English village. At times there are hints of darker backstories - tragic life events that drove the participants to their obsession. But the show manages to balance respect for their commitment with the essential ridiculousness of the activities. Rainn Wilson’s narration is key to this - his voice is epic-movie-trailer-guy, but his tongue is firmly in his cheek.
The show’s aesthetic is similarly balanced. It has the high production values of a big budget sports documentary, chock full of ultra-high-definition closeups, slow motion and drone shots. But it also has a very obvious nod to the whimsicality of Wes Anderson in the graphics and titles. This balance of serious format and light subject matter is an example of a storytelling aesthetic that has jumped from podcasting to TV - if you’re a fan of Heavyweight, Mystery Show, or the rest of the Gimlet back catalogue, you’ll love this show.
It might feel that this approach, giving seemingly trivial pursuits a serious documentary treatment, is inappropriate for a time when there are more important and urgent stories to tell. But remember the slogan of the eight-hour day movement - we need time for work, time for rest, and time for what we will.
We need to gather to fight for our rights, but we also need to gather to watch people chase a cheese down a hill. These are both necessary parts of being human, of society, of culture. Hopefully, in 2021, we’ll be able to do both of these things again. In the meantime, pause the doomscrolling and give We Are The Champions some of the hard-won eight hours of your leisure time
It has to be the first episode, the story of a rural English town’s cheese-rolling competition. It might be because I’m from the UK, but we’re very good at keeping trivial obsessions going for so many years that they end up becoming historical traditions. The downsides of that might be living in a class-bound society ruled by a constitutional monarchy, but the upsides include stories like that of the brilliantly named, inspirational cheese-rolling champion Flo Early. Long may she reign.
If you like eccentric stories about obsessive groups of people, then you should take the hints from the We Are The Champions design team and watch the movies of Wes Anderson. Rushmore, his early film about teenager Max Fisher and his obsession with excelling at everything except his school work, feels particularly relevant. And whilst you’re on Netflix, check out the episode of Chef’s Table: BBQ that tells the incredible story of Tootsie Tomanetz. Even if you’re a vegan, you’ll end up falling in love with Tootsie.
I’m a couple of episodes into this series and I’m loving it. Rainn Wilson nails the commentary and the aesthetic is perfect.
This isn’t the first time TV has tried covering niche sports in a high-octane way. Check out George Jones in the first-ever televised Cheese Skittles championship, a pair of ‘punters from the potteries’ fighting it out over Table Skittles, and two members of the ‘Durham Mafia’ go head to head at Shove Ha’penny. Enjoy.
Thanks for reading. Share with your friends. See you all.