Hank Azaria delivers a brilliant tragicomic performance in the kooky 'Brockmire'

NOSELL

IFC

 

Monday, April 10, 2017 - 11:34am

More often than not, movies and TV shows about sports focus on the “underdog,” whether that be a retired major league player/coach or an underappreciated-turned-triumphant team. But what about the characters behind the scenes od these events? What stories do they tell? Can they be considered “underdogs” also? IFC’s “Brockmire” experiments with this concept, but does more than expected, incorporating a tragicomic tone that both embraces and subverts the sports trope.  

Originally conceived seven years ago in a Funny or Die sketch, “Brockmire” makes the most of its hilarious television debut, intersecting the vulgarity of baseball comedy with an off-kilter edge. It draws some thematic and tonal comparisons to HBO’s “Eastbound and Down,” but “Brockmire” has a lot more heart and less cruelness. Think “A League Of Their Own,” just with more heavy drinking, weed ingesting, extramarital affairs and existential despair.

At the center of all this is the show’s titular baseball announcer Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”), whose profanity-heavy on-air meltdown about his wife’s infidelity leads to a decade of unemployment and humiliation. After years of being broke, single and drunk on misery and whiskey, Brockmire gets a second chance at fame when he moves to Morristown, Pennsylvania to be the new broadcaster for the town’s minor league baseball team, the Frackers. As he settles into his new lifestyle in the Rust Belt, Brockmire must begrudgingly work with the team’s chipper owner Jules (Amanda Peet, “Togetherness”) and millennial intern Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams, “Pants on Fire”), all while attempting to regain his past glory of narrating America’s pastime.

This may seem like a typical riches-to-rags-to-riches story, as most underdog stories are. But with its crass dark humor and Azaria’s central performance, “Brockmire” is more than just a comeback tale. In particular, Azaria, Peet and Williams make an interesting trio. Though they all come from different comedic backgrounds, they each bring something to the table — Azaria’s deadpan coarseness, Peet’s earnest optimism and Williams’s naive exuberance — that coalesce nicely together. During one especially hilarious scene, Charles and Jules show Brockmire a previously unseen meltdown that became an internet sensation. “So people just watch the worst moments of my life and laugh at my pain?” Brockmire asks the two. At the exact same time, Charles and Jules both respond yes and no, respectively, leading to an awkward yet guffaw-inducing silence.

Besides the show’s clever sports humor and offbeat existentialism, what’s most intriguing about “Brockmire” is how it deconstructs its eponymous subject. Beneath Jim Brockmire’s flashy plaid attire and articulate, cartoonish voice is a deeply broken man, whose anger over his wife’s affair was probably one of several last straws that broke the camel’s back.

“Brockmire” is not just a redemption story; it's a character study of the underdog through the lens of middle-aged male malaise. The show begs the question: Should we root for Brockmire? His alcoholism and lewd comments make it difficult to sympathize with his condition, but the more he confronts his past, the more he learns how to deal with his inner demons. Painting Brockmire as this flawed character grappling with his passion for announcing at baseball games makes his journey to self-actualization all the more engrossing, especially as Brockmire interjects vivid personal philosophies into his colorful play-by-plays of the game. Thanks to years of vocal experience with “The Simpsons,” Azaria is the perfect person to play Brockmire, imbuing the character with tenacity, vulnerability and eloquent elocution.

Despite an admirable start, “Brockmire” is still rough around the edges. Not every joke in the pilot is a grand slam, nor do the writing and dialogue knock it out of the ballpark. But given that it’s already renewed for a second season, “Brockmire” seems like it could easily turn into a home run of an underdog sports story.