A “show about soccer,” they say. “Lots of sex and violence,” they say. OK, it is summertime and not much is going on. I will check it out. Admittedly, I know next to nothing about the game. I never played it in my youth. My kids never played soccer either; hockey and basketball were their choices. A lack of soccer in your life is fine because unless things change, the premiere episode of 21 Thunder on CBC actually showed much less soccer than it did the lives of the players involved with the franchise.
And this just may work. With the influx of new Canadians, and the popularity of players like Messi, Neymar and Agüero, soccer is gaining a strong foothold in the public’s consciousness—particularly our youth—and so what better foil to tell the story of diverse backgrounds than a football pitch? Toss in storylines that appeal to millennials, and we have 21 Thunder. CBC’s newest drama explores the diversity that is so prevalent in urban Canada through the storytelling of co-creators Riley Adams (Flashpoint), Kenneth Hirsch, and Adrian Wills.
The opening scenes in the premiere episode of CBC’s 21 Thunder welcomed viewers to the Thunder family and introduce viewers to Christy Cook (Stephanie Bennett, The Romeo Section) turned coach, unwanted and ignored by the coaching staff but nonetheless slotted into the coaching team by upper management; Davey Gunn (Ryan Pierce/Ryan O’Leary, a former professional Scottish footballer) a soccer superstar on the run from his past; former gang member Nolan Gallard (RJ Fetherstonhaugh, Wayward Pines) struggling to resist his wayward habits of youth; Ivory Coast midfielder Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo, Hemlock Grove); and team captain, goalie and academic prodigy Alex el Haddadi (Andres Joseph, The Flash) who all play under the leadership of head coach Albert Rocas (Conrad Pla, 19-2). They’re all part of the struggling U-21 Montreal Thunder soccer franchise. Yes, there are big egos here, but you just know that with hubris comes gigantic falls and that spells drama!
Following the introductions—as much backstory as you can cram into 15 mins—the pace quickened the moment Nolan ran into a former friend/gang member from his youth: “Special K” (Kyle Mac). The call of Nolan’s past rang deep and with barely a second thought he jumped headlong back into his criminal ways. Nolan followed Special K and the rest of the Point Soldiers as they tried to recoup their losses from a drug deal gone bad. The gig quickly went sideways and ended in bloodshed. Nolan narrowly escaped capture by the police—good thing he is such a fine soccer player! However, the Point Soldiers have Nolan’s participation recorded on video, and “K” found Nolan’s missing medallion which was lost at the scene of the crime. Seems our pretty boy Nolan has a whole lot of ugly coming down!
And just in case you didn’t think Nolan had enough going against him in this opening episode, we learned about his father, Declan Gallard (Colm Feore, whom I had the privilege to see play Romeo at Stratford in 1984!) currently serving time at the same facility where “Special K” served out his sentence. I suppose we have to wait to learn how far-reaching Declan’s past will interfere with his son’s future. Or in a twist, will Declan’s connections be what saves Nolan from his impulsiveness? In any case, Nolan’s play on the pitch was affected by his extra curriculars and the coaching staff took notice.
Other questions that remain as we await next week’s episode: how will Christy and her brother, Peter (Chris Cavener), manage to care for their ailing mother, and how will that affect Christy’s coaching responsibilities? How are Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo) and his younger brother coping as they adjust to life in Montreal? And how is Assistant Coach Davey Gunn going to influence all of the various players on the team as the season plays out?
Overall, I found this episode visually appealing, looking more akin to the productions we see coming from BBC. I was also reminded of the cult-favourite Dream Team, which appeared in the late 90s to 2006 on SKY; the football drama featured an underage team in the English Premiership, chockablock with crazy storylines, lots of sex and gratuitous violence. It remains to be seen if 21 Thunder intends to follow that same path, or if it will generate the same fan following that Dream Team did two decades ago.
A couple of little things did niggle at me. Coach Cook’s little “header hack” was a bit too amateur for pro soccer, and actor RJ Fetherstonaugh is just too pretty and clean to portray a former gang member—yes, I know, I am falling for the archetypes here. Both were distractions for me as I watched. However, those aside, I am very curious to see how the show evolves and I am quite interested to see how both newcomer Pierce and veteran Feore’s characters develop through the season.
What were your initial thoughts following tonight’s premiere? Let me know in the comments below!
21 Thunder airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.