Hank Azaria's Funny or Die sportscaster works surprisingly well as a regular series lead on the new IFC show, costarring the excellent Amanda Peet.
After decades revered as the unofficial voice of baseball and one of America's great living storytellers, Vin Scully left the game last fall, amid tears and tributes.
After peaking as baseball's youngest play-by-play man for the Kansas City Royals, Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria) left the game a decade ago when revelations of his wife's infidelities led to a graphic, obscenity-filled on-air meltdown, rendering him unemployable and forced to wander the international wilderness, where highlights included boozy cock-fighting in the Philippines.
IFC's rough-but-funny new baseball comedy Brockmire begins with the disgraced announcer resurfacing in the small Pennsylvania coal town of Morristown, unaware that in his absence he has become a YouTube celebrity. Sure, Brockmire's fame is really notoriety and his name has become associated with public embarrassment, but any kind of recognition is allure enough for Jules (Amanda Peet), owner of the dismal Frackers, Morristown's local minor league baseball team. Jules hopes that by luring Brockmire back to the booth, she can save the team and maybe even save the town.
It's sure to be an uphill task for Brockmire, as he has to fight his own demons and even win over his partner in the booth, the Frackers' social media intern Charlie (Tyrel Jackson Williams), whose feeling is that "Baseball's one of those old-timey things you don't need anymore. Like cursing or email."
Adapted by Joel Church-Cooper from Azaria's Funny or Die character and premiering on April 5, Brockmire probably requires a little bit more openness to baseball-based humor than Charlie shows in the beginning. It helps if you're the kind of person who gets excited by a cameo from baseball scribe Jonah Keri and who knows to be impressed when guest star Tim Kurkjian nails the punchline, "I love lentil."
But affection for Willie Stargell and Red Barber and the sport's unwritten rules is hardly mandatory, because in Azaria's hands, Brockmire and Brockmire are almost astonishingly versatile. With a voice cobbled from announcers like Bob Murphy and Phil Rizzuto and an assortment of checkered blazers and a decency filter worn away by years of boozing and drugs and sexual peculiarities, Brockmire has all the makings of a character who works best in the smallest of doses.
Over the eight-episode first season, all sent to critics, much is made of the inherent silliness of Brockmire using his sonorous pipes and the flexible language restrictions of cable to narrate baseball games or to tell scandalous stories from his years in exile or to narrate intercourse or even to explain the root causes for World War II. Somehow, though, the voice is still able work in less ridiculous contexts like semi-serious conversations with Jules, as the two damaged characters embark on a relationship that makes more sense as it progresses. For Azaria, it's an effective nexus of a career spent between wacky one-off characters and voiceover gigs and more grounded work like Huff. [John C. McGinley is doing something similar in Stan Against Evil, which makes for an odd, not unpleasant, IFC brand.]
Making the Jules-Brockmire romance plausible also relies heavily on Peet, who continues to excel at finding the humor in women whose bad choices can sometimes look desperate, but never pathetic. It's a good follow-up to her work on HBO's Togetherness, which, in a just world, would have earned Peet award nominations. Both Azaria and Peet spend a lot of time playing drunk in Brockmire and they do it well, as both comedy and suggestion of deeper issues.
Williams has a similar mixture of comic timing and ungainly physicality to brother Tyler (Everybody Hates Chris) and rounds out a fine core trio. Charlie's generally a lighter character, one with enough hints of maladjusted awkwardness that he fits in.
Beyond that, Brockmire also nicely establishes Morristown as a hilarious and empathetic setting. Director Tim Kirkby gives the air an almost chartreuse filtered hue and then populates the bleachers and local dive bars and the Frackers' lineup with people who have perhaps spent too long breathing that air. The show's slowly unfolding ensemble includes Hemky Madera, Ryan Lee, Molly Ephraim and Toby Huss in what might be introduced as one-note punchlines, but become welcome presences as those single notes accumulate. More polished guest turns come from Katie Finneran, as Brockmire's omnisexual ex, and David Walton, reuniting with his Bent co-star as an executive for the local oil company trying to run the Frackers out of town. Joe Buck's performance as himself may work even better if you've never especially loved Joe Buck's performance as a sportscaster.
Over the course of the eight episodes, Brockmire moves through a trio of arcs, delivering underdog sports hijinks, the Jules-Brockmire romance and Brockmire's sad and probably doomed search for redemption. That's all propped up with enough low-brow jokes, raunchy baseball references and disreputable hijinks that the show never wallows. I reached the finale and I was surprised at how much I wanted to see more from a character I initially thought couldn't sustain more than five minutes.
Cast: Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet, Tyrel Jackson Williams
Creator: Joel Church-Cooper
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT] on IFC, premiering on April 5.