‘Greatness Code’ is Apple TV+’s limp attempt at sharing athlete stories

Usain Bolt
Apple TV+/Creative Commons

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

What would it take for you to feel like you’ve made it? Apple TV+’s new short-form documentary series “Greatness Code” details these very moments for a slew of household names in sports, such as Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecky, Kelly Slater and more. But for a show about such active individuals, this passive story anthology falls flat.

“Greatness Code” features A-list names within a variety of sports arenas — from basketball to surfing to snowboarding and more. The show passes a mic to these star athletes, sharing how they’ve overcome different challenges or how they remember the “greatest moments” from their careers, like football star Tom Brady says in the second episode.

Each entry is anywhere from about five to eight minutes, making viewers feel like they’re watching a bite-sized YouTube series rather than a full made-for-television production. With this time constraint, the central athletes have barely enough breath to cover even the surface-level feelings surrounding particular games and their significant impacts. As a result, the storylines are often hard to follow, as there isn’t much structure dictating the narrative nor enough time to establish sufficient setting and background information. 

This show might be solid for people with expert sports knowledge, but if you’re anywhere near novice level, you may have a strenuous time following along. The athletes don’t use much inaccessible jargon or get too into technicalities, but if you’re not familiar with sports history or how certain sports are structured, this might not be your best binge watch.

There are several angles this show tries to cover, however, that can’t be explained with a quick 20-second briefing — no matter how much sports knowledge one may have. In the first episode, LeBron James mentions how playing a game in a highly racialized area affected his gameplay. The show entirely misses the mark in giving this topic genuine attention; while James’ experience with racism in the sports industry could’ve been a compelling focus for the interview, or at least a strong thread, it is instead passed by for an empty recollection of how James simply “felt nothing.” 

When the show touches on these social topics just a bit harder — like when Alex Morgan addresses the wage gap between male and female soccer players, her previous underdog status and how she looks past these issues — the show is not only more interesting, but the profiles are also more enriching to viewers looking for inspiration in the current absence of live sporting events. “Greatness Code” has multiple opportunities to fully dive into a controversial issue or give athletes a platform to speak honestly, but instead, the show takes the safe route an exhaustive number of times.

The structure and setup may be wholly disappointing, but what the show lacks in story, it only slightly makes up for in style. Most every animated scene or ornamentation is sleek, modern and in line with the active aesthetic, bringing in movement to keep visual interest as most interview frames show stagnant posture. The black-and-white coloring of the interview footage increases the storytelling drama while also providing contrast to these lively graphic elements. 

Episodes that expertly balance live interview footage with animation and documented performance videos prove to be the most worthwhile watches. Shaun White’s episode, one of the longest in the series, most clearly demonstrates how evening out these elements creates an overall satisfying glance — even if a 20-minute segment would have served him better than his barely eight minutes. 

“Greatness Code” could have easily benefitted from longer episodes and more active storytelling. In its current state, this show really serves no point other than to give sports fans a crumb of entertainment during a dry spell. Like Morgan says in her episode, these people are “more than just athletes.” It’s just too bad Apple TV+ fumbles with this minor league portrayal.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.