The CWs March Documents an HBCU Marching Band: TV Review

In the long tail of Netflix’s “Cheer” comes the CW’s “March” — a documentary series about a group of collegiate athlete-performers in Texas. And this series, set at the historically Black university Prairie View A&M, makes a strong case for itself as a doc filled with heart and spirit, and one with a deep curiosity about what goes into the work of a marching band at every level.

As we open, Prairie View’s troupe is licking their wounds after having placed lower on a national ranking of HBCU marching bands — they’re No. 8, and, as any group of people who toil for hours on their chosen vocation, they believe themselves to be the rightful No. 1. Five minutes in, after some initial exposition, we get a glimpse of what goes into it, with six drum majors practicing complex moves. (The series welcomes in viewers who may not be familiar with HBCU band culture by having a drum major explain that, unlike in staid college marching bands, here, drum majors are charismatic dancing “superstars.”)

The show is upfront both about how hard its characters work to create joy on the field when they perform and the added challenge of pulling joy out of adversity. One compelling and charismatic performer we meet makes money as a self-employed caterer, baker, and vendor of hair and hair accessories; she explains to us both the social misunderstandings and altercations that led to her leaving the band. She also describes the challenges of college for someone whose gender presentation changes based on the day. “They’ll see me in public with my hair and makeup done,” she says, “and be like, ‘Is that a boy or is that girl?’ Both of ‘em!”

This moment stands out for its candor about complicated issues; it exemplifies “March” in the way it uses the band as a tool to examine the way young people are coming into themselves. Elsewhere in the series pilot, a sage student counsels a rising superstar about the right way to address his peers, rather than shouting at them when they botch moves on the field: “You’ll get a better reaction when they feel like they can talk to you, open up, and be transparent.” And the band’s faculty director speaks to a senior whom he’s asked to leave the band for conduct reasons. His assuredness makes an impression, as is his willingness to treat certain values as greater than making a student happy (and filling a spot in his band) by reinstating her.

These moments don’t reinvent the wheel. But they show a community that is working hard to excel by uplifting one another in teamwork, led by an advisor who, warmingly, has his charges’ best interests at heart. “March” is well-made, and an unusual entrant on network TV. More than that, though, it pursues its subjects and their goals — to rise to the top spot in the national rankings, and to do so while making sure each team member is seen and respected — with an open heart, making this a lovely, unexpected watch.

“March” premieres Monday, January 24 at 8 p.m.

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