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''Hard Knocks'' is the summer's best reality show

HBO’s football documentary series can make even a non-fan cheer, says Bruce Fretts

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Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, ...
Hardknocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore Ravens: Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore RavensPhil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens

”Hard Knocks” is the summer’s best reality show

”Fear Factor” is for wimps. And those ”Big Brother 2” whiners act like it’s torture when they have to survive on P.B.-&-J for four days. You want to see a real test of mettle? Check out HBO’s ”Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore Ravens” (Wed., 11 p.m; repeated Thur., 8 p.m.). It’s been the summer’s best reality show.

I’m not a huge football fan, but I’ve been knocked out by this six-part documentary, which concludes next week. You’d think the pre-season workouts for last year’s Super Bowl champions would be dull, and that producer NFL Films might whitewash the seamier side of pro football. But ”Hard Knocks” provides everything you want from a show, reality or not.

HIGH DRAMA Amazingly, the defending champs came to camp without a starting quarterback in place. Who rode to the rescue? A guy named Elvis (Grbac, that is). Star running back Jamal Lewis suffered a season-ending knee injury, opening a fierce competition to replace him that includes a batch of hungry rookies and 11-year veteran Terry Allen, who wants one last shot at a Super Bowl ring. Plus, the heat exhaustion-related death of Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer forced the players to confront their own mortalities.

COMIC RELIEF Somebody should give Tony Siragusa his own sitcom. The hulking defensive tackle has been a constant cut-up, whether he’s critiquing coach Brian Bilick’s too-short shorts (”You can definitely tell he dresses to the left”), playing practical jokes on tight end Shannon Sharpe, or even going in for minor knee surgery (he helpfully wrote ”yes” and ”no” on each knee to make sure the doctors operated on the right one). How can you not love a 300-pound-plus guy whose nickname is ”Goose”?

COMPELLING CHARACTERS Although he’s not a handsome man (as his players like to point out), Billick clearly loves the camera, and the feeling is mutual. With his trademark black hat, he’s a self-styled badass, as is Super Bowl MVP linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis’ spasmodic dancing style alone would make him intimidating even if he hadn’t been accused of murder last year (he later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge).

SEX CONTROVERSY In a remarkably disturbing scene, an alleged expert on male-female relations was brought in to lecture the players about how to avoid rape allegations. As Billick put it, ”No means no, maybe means no, and yes means no in the morning.” Somehow, I’m guessing he’s not a member of NOW.

TANTALIZING SUSPENSE Tune into the series finale to see who makes the team and who gets sent packing after the last preseason game — a Super Bowl rematch with the New York Giants, no less. When these players get voted off, it’s for real.

What’s your favorite summer reality show?