Trouble with the Curve

watching brockmire on IFC

 

There isn’t anything particularly special about Brockmire, the new series that premiered April 5th at 10 p.m. on IFC, except for the fact that Hank Azaria is in it. The Simpsons star hasn’t been a cast member on a live-action television series since 2011’s flop Free Agents. But he’s one of the great TV talents of all time—best known as a voice actor but doing great work, too, in films like Tuesdays at Morrie and Heat and on the stage, as well as in innumerable guest appearances on sitcoms, for the past 30 years. Seeing his face onscreen is a pleasant reminder that great careers don’t always fade into irrelevance, so Brockmire is in some ways welcome.

Azaria plays the main character, a dissolute baseball announcer, a character he created in 2010 for a series of Funny or Die shorts. Two years later, he was possessive enough to sue Craig Bierko for full ownership of the character—smart move. Jim Brockmire is a unique and valuable creation, a motormouth with a voice and style of which any announcer would be proud coupled with a chronic inability to keep his personal life out of the booth.

Most of Brockmire’s pilot concerns Brockmire laid low. After being fired from his network play-by-play job, the disgraced announcer is reduced to in-stadium announcing for a minor-league team in the fictional Morristown, Pennsylvania. It’s a tired premise—the once-high-flying elite sent packing to an environment way below his pay-grade (see Community, The Newsroom, and, perhaps most relevantly, Eastbound and Down, from which is borrowed not only the sports-related premise but the podunk locale and warm orange-toned lighting). Amanda Peet, as Jules James (say that five times fast), the owner of the minor-league team, worryingly called the Morristown Frackers, is once again relegated to the unfunny sidekick position, and it’s only when she’s allowed to geek out over baseball that we see her humanity through her inexplicable corporatist Master-of-the-Universe facade. A diversion in the second episode that sends Brockmire and James on a sexual tear to prolong a Frackers winning streak is conceptually daring but only intermittently as shocking as it wants to be. The hot-and-heavy stuff is another example of where the series seems to be strongest—its increasingly frequent self-contained montage sequences—which heighten the realization that Brockmire would’ve been altogether better off as another viral video.

In the opening scene of the pilot, a four-minute bravura piece of acting, Brockmire has a breakdown live on air while announcing a Royals-Red Sox game. His wife has cheated on him in the most graphic and offensive manner as possible, and the announcer doesn’t hold anything back. It’s fluid and remarkable, a car crash you can’t look away from, except that this crash is anchored by Azaria’s extraordinary control as an actor. Nothing that follows in the first few episodes lives up to this sequence, which takes wide swaths of its material from the original FOD short, “Gamechangers: A Legend in the Booth.” As the creator, executive producer, and writer of all eight episodes, Joel Church-Cooper, late of Undateable, has the unenviable task of creating a framework that can support Azaria’s talent. He fails, which isn’t entirely his fault—the show is nice as can be, with genuine dramatic moments coexisting peacefully with Azaria’s high-flying lunacy. But there are a hundred sitcoms on the air that are nice enough to fall asleep to, and it’s a stretch to argue we need one more.

The show, at least, doesn’t take its time getting to the meat of its story, which may satisfy those with a short attention span but, in its haste, leaves one feeling markedly empty. The general threat, it turns out, is actually an ex of Jules’s (played, ominously, by the perennial pilot-killer David Walton), who works for Pennsylvania Shale Oil and wants to raze the Frackers’ stadium to make way for some nonspecific shrine to petroleum straight out of Dynasty. Our heroes, naturally, haven’t quite figured this out yet. Boilerplate sitcom space-filling needs time to ensue—minor-league baseball players are fat, Brockmire threatens to leave town and then (shocker) stays, Brockmire gets high on qat with a local boy (Tyrel Jackson Williams) unironically referred to as an “internet whiz kid.” West of Philly, evidently, the World Wide Web is still working its way into the American lexicon.

Given the time and attention, Brockmire could develop into something worthwhile. Its killer visuals, courtesy of director Joe Farrel, and as-of-yet unexplored world suggest potential. But as of right now, it’s not worth the time. Unmoored and unmotivated, the show bobs aimlessly from scenario to scenario, an unlikely contender to bolster IFC’s comedy slate as the end of Portlandia approaches. Anyway, Azaria’s last star turn, the aforementioned Free Agents on NBC, was canceled for low ratings after four episodes. Ah, well, Hank. Chief Wiggum is calling.