Amazon Studios' first venture into the New Zealand market, All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks, keeps being described in New Zealand media as a documentary series about the All Blacks' 2017 season. It isn't. It's not even described that way on the page, where the genre line, lifted from IMDB, reads "Unscripted". That's a common industry term for a strain of reality television.
The three credited executive producers are Australian-born Eden Gaha, who worked with Mark Burnett on Survivor, The Apprentice, Masterchef and others; Greg Heathcote, EP on New Zealand versions of The Block, The Bachelor and Survivor and others; and Pango Productions co-founder Bailey Mackey. Remarkably, the guy who made The GC is the least reality TV-ish of the three.
The background of its principals is evident throughout the six episodes, most notably in the tightly-framed contemporaneous confessionals from key characters, as they rate their chances, rue their mistakes and contemplate their challenges. They're the same formulaic shots you'll see in Masterchef or The Bachelor.
But after binge-watching all six episodes on Monday – because yes, I really liked it – I'm wondering if the key contribution came from Bailey Mackey and his company. There's a warmth and yes, a Māoriness, that seems quite different to other series in the NFL-owned All or Nothing franchise – and it's more than getting Taika Waititi in as narrator. The All or Nothing series following the Dallas Cowboys' 2017 season (thus, made at the same time as the All Blacks one) is more documentarian, but positively frosty by comparison.
Perhaps that had something to do with Tom Pullar Strecker's report in January that New Zealand Rugby was unhappy with early work on the $20 million project. Perhaps they weren't getting the documentary they expected. But, having traded access for approval, did they really want a documentary anyway? At any rate, the series was cut from the usual eight episodes to six.
Certanly, All or Nothing won't tell international viewers much about the game of rugby. The producers opted, perhaps wisely, not to try and explain the rules of the game – or even, in the case of Sonny Bill Williams, the difference between union and league.
Moreover, almost all the gameplay is shot in tight, from ground level. This has the effect of focusing on the collisions and emphasising the gladitorial nature of test rugby. The gleefully OTT sound design characterises every clash and kick (and in one case, a hug) as a huge detonation. Every haka is sheer thunder. It's fun to watch, but it's impossible to see any tactical dimension – and it actually drains the genius out of many of the tries.
What saves the series is the people. Unscripted TV almost always relies on creating conflict, and doing it in the edit suite if it doesn't happen in real time. There's remarkably little of that here.
Instead, Steve Hansen emerges less as Head Coach than Empath in Chief, talking about the job being to know which players "need a cuddle and which ones need a boot up the bum". He swears quite readily, but his team-talks are more firm than ferocious – and yet his players look at him wide-eyed, like anxious schoolkids. There's a particularly good scene where he shuts up a cluster of established players urgently advising newbie Ngani Laumape at training.
The series follows a handful of players' stories closely: Sonny Bill owning up to that red-card tackle in the second Lions test; Ben Smith and his family worrying about another concussion (which turns out to be something else altogether); Ryan Crotty fighting his way back into the starting lineup, only to fall cruelly to a hamstring injury. These are all, necessarily, interrupted narratives and the characters fall in and out of the overall story a little awkwardly in places.
But the loveliest part of the series is the ascent of Reiko Ioane. The possibly-contrived conversation at training in which Wayne Smith is flabbergasted by Hansen's order at training for Julian Savea to switch wings to give Reiko a run on the left, with an eye to starting him there, is gold. But oh man, Reiko's proud family: I was pretty much crying with them.
(By contrast, the first real drama in the Cowboys series is the management team trying to make a domestic violence allegation against their top draft pick go away. It's a little hard to empathise.)
The players basically emerge as humble and genuine, and devoted to Hansen's vision of helping them to achieve things "they believed they couldn't achieve". If the actual rugby part isn't all that well conveyed, I think the producers, possibly a bit by accident, got to the heart of what makes the modern All Black team culture special.
Sky Television has bought All or Nothing for screening, or you can take advantage of a seven-day free trial and stream it on Prime Video. (If you have a smart TV, it probably has the Prime Video app – you just need to log in to Amazon and enable Prime Video.)