You may have heard the protagonists of the new Mighty Ducks series are not the actual Mighty Ducks. Instead, they’re the Don’t Bothers, a new underdog youth hockey team that forms to challenge the reigning champ—now the Ducks themselves. It sounds awfully familiar: a ragtag crew assembles to take on the heavy favorites, just like in the ‘90s. This shared template, combined with a stark reversal, defines Game Changers’ relationship to the original trilogy. As does its approach to the cast.
Emilio Estevez returns as coach Gordon Bombay, now a debt-ridden ice rink owner far from his days as a high-flying corporate attorney. Cameos from original Ducks have been promised in later episodes beyond the three shared with critics in advance, but the kids themselves are all new (as they would have to be in a show for and about tweens). Meanwhile, the adult half of the cast has its own new faces—chief among them Lauren Graham, whose determined leader of a character both works with and partially supplants Gordon as the Mighty Ducks’ new centerpiece.
In some ways, Graham’s character Alex is well within the actor’s comfort zone. A wise-cracking single mom whose relationship with her only child is as much a friendship as anything else, Alex isn’t too far off from Lorelai Gilmore, the Stars Hollow resident who remains Graham’s most beloved character. Still, there are important differences between the two women: Alex lives in Minnesota, not the Warner Bros. backlot dressed up as Connecticut. Her kid is the hockey-obsessed Evan (Brady Noon), not a precocious bookworm with an ambiguous romantic track record. And there definitely aren’t rich parents waiting in the wings to bail out Alex and Evan; if there were, the Don’t Bothers wouldn’t have to scavenge their equipment from another team’s lost and found.
But Game Changers still marks a return to form for Graham, one that could introduce her to a new generation while also bringing her talents to a new genre. (While Graham says she’s gotten more into sports as a result of spending quarantine with her boyfriend, Parenthood co-star Peter Krause, she’s not exactly a hockey fan herself.) In a sense, Graham’s role in Game Changers is a reflection of the show’s role in the Mighty Ducks franchise: an effective nostalgia ploy that also uses novelty to keep things fresh. The difference is that Graham’s presence is targeted more at the parents than kids just getting acquainted with the feel-good sports comedy and its 21st century refresh.
Alex also updates the team-leader figure in ways that feel instructive. Gordon was a lawyer with a limousine reluctantly roped into youth coaching through court-mandated community service, a fitting-enough antihero for the aftermath of the greed-is-good ’80s. This time, it’s a rival team mom who’s the attorney at a local law firm, assembling snack spreadsheets and hiring multiple private coaches for her high-school freshman. Alex is a paralegal, the kind of support staff dispatched for unsavory tasks like trying to bribe low-income tenants out of a gentrifying apartment building. (When stonewalled, she tells them unhappily she wouldn’t take the deal, either.) She’s perhaps a more fitting heroine for a time when income inequality is closer to the forefront of audiences’ minds.
Which isn’t to say that Graham’s performance, or Game Changers in general, is a gritty, Zack Snyder-style reboot of a franchise that’s ultimately about laughably implausible hockey stunts. (The first Bombay-hatched play of the season involves a flashy decoy and a questionable game of hide-the-puck.) Graham is a skilled comic actress, and her rant that gives the new team its name—delivered after the Ducks’ snotty coach cuts Evan from the team and tells him to quit hockey altogether—comes after a skate-less Alex tries to storm on and off the ice, a perfect piece of physical comedy that becomes a recurring bit, one Graham makes a meal of each time.
She’s also an audience surrogate, or at least a surrogate for a portion of the audience that’s necessary for Disney’s four-quadrant appeal. Part of Game Changers’ target demographic will be older millennials who grew up with a cherubic, pre-Pacey Joshua Jackson; part of it will be actual kids who appreciate the timeless appeal of a feel-good story, plus more modern cracks about AirDrops and helicopter parents. Graham caters to a third group: adults watching because their children are, but who welcome the presence of a familiar face. Plenty can relate to the experience of a hockey agnostic who finds herself caring because someone she loves does, too. (In this case, the fourth quadrant is the mythical creature immune to hockey, Ducks lore, and Lauren Graham, but knows a well-made show when they see it.)
Later this month, Disney+ will premier Big Shot, a live-action show from David E. Kelley starring John Stamos as a college basketball coach demoted to a girls’ high school team. The back-to-back premieres suggest that, while hardly Marvel or Star Wars, the kids’ sports comedy anchored by a likable adult star will become a well-worn playbook for the nascent streaming service. (The Stamos character’s name is Marvyn Korn, but it might as well be Shmordon Bombay.) Alex, and by extension Graham, plays a key part in keeping that strategy from going stale. To make a revival work, you need some vitality alongside the retread.