The third episode of Netflix’s adult animated comedy “Hoops” opens with a horse funeral. Zipper, a 20-year-old stallion beloved by his owner, Shannon (voiced by Natasha Leggero), passed away after a full, presumably rich life at his owner’s Kentucky farm, and Shannon is delivering an uplifting eulogy to an uncharacteristically large gathering of mourners. The only problem is that every time she says something nice about her horse, two bumbling ranch hands do something awful to its remains. First, they drop Zipper’s massive body off the side of their truck. One leg “breaks off,” his teeth are knocked out, and, when she finally sends them away so she can finish the funeral in peace, they run Zipper over, making his eyes bulge out like that alien-looking stress ball.
The joke here isn’t all that fresh. Contrasting sweet intentions with disturbing reality is a hallmark of shock comedy; so much so, that in 2020 it takes more than showing an upsetting act or cursing up a storm to get laughs. People are less easily startled and quicker to recognize familiar beats, and rarely does creator Ben Hoffman try to subvert expectations during “Hoops.” Instead, he eagerly leans into repeating the same profane bits again and again, exemplifying the belief that Stewie’s elongated critique of Brian’s nonexistent novel is the pinnacle of modern comedy. “Hoops” leans on extremely crude but lazy gags throughout its first 10 episodes, without ever appearing to realize that all it’s doing is beating a dead horse.
“Hoops” centers on Ben Hopkins (voiced by Jake Johnson), a basketball coach working at a small town high school in Kentucky who dreams of making the big time. Unfortunately, Ben’s team, the Lenwood Colts, is so bad even their horseshoe logo is set in the wrong direction. (That being said, people disagree over whether a horseshoe pointing up or down brings good luck, so this choice could be accidental.) Perhaps that’s why the Colts are caught in such a long downward spiral that Ben will lose his job if he doesn’t start winning. Or, more likely, he’s about to get fired because he pays for his players’ porn subscriptions and cusses out referees on a regular basis. By any metric — success, professionalism, plain ol’ likability — he’s a terrible coach, but he can still save his job because there’s a student at Lenwood who is seven feet tall, and Ben will do anything — anything — to get him on the team.
Hence, the pilot episode of “Hoops” revolves around a 40-something authority figure negotiating with a prostitute over a fair cost to commit statutory rape. OK, technically, it’s not statutory rape because Kentucky law states the age of consent is 16, but Matty (A.D. Miles) is still referred to as a “kid” multiple times by the coach who’s trying to hook him up with a sex worker. Worse still, there’s just not a lot of humor there. The episode spends a lot of time watching Ben come up with the idea, negotiate a fair price, and find the money to afford it, but there’s very little regarding his comeuppance, shaming, or anything to counterbalance his outrageous behavior. Typically, when someone’s behaving badly, there’s someone else there to point out his extreme behavior; “Hoops” just wallows in it. Hoffman is happy creating a world where Ben can get away with stuff like this without learning his lesson or offering any applicable commentary. Only the act is funny (even though it’s not). There’s no satire here, or anything beyond the surface-level ugliness.
That’s not to say there aren’t other characters, but none are fleshed out enough to stand out. Shannon, the aforementioned former horse owner, is also Ben’s ex-wife. She’s currently dating Ben’s assistant coach, Ron (Ron Funchess), who’s the opposite of his boss: Kind, thoughtful, and quiet, Ron could’ve illustrated just how big of a mistake Shannon made with Ben, but instead, they’re both just half thought-out motivational tools for Ben. He won’t stop calling Shannon his wife in front of Ron, which I guess is funny because it makes Ron sad (or it should), and that’s about the extent of Ron’s development. (The last episodes give him slightly more to deal with, but it doesn’t deepen the character at all.) And even though Shannon’s introduction makes it clear she doesn’t care about her ex-husband, there’s a still a “will they / won’t they” relationship arc jammed in anyway.
A similar lack of follow-through is evident in everything from predictable but unearned character arcs (Ben and Shannon make… zero sense) to the episode titles, which were at one point spiced up with F-bombs (“The F***ing Pilot,” “F***ing Ethics”) before being relegated back to basics (“The Pilot,” “Ethics”). In the end, basic sums up “Hoops” pretty well. After an episode or two (if that), it’s hard to ignore that everyone in Ben’s life would be better off without him, and there’s not a single reason given for investing in his quest to become a professional basketball coach so he can get his “dick sucked in an infinity pool.” (Yes, that’s a direct quote, and yes, Ben mentions it numerous times.)
For its many, many attempts at jarring a chortle or two out of viewers — in all seriousness, Season 1 might set a Guinness World Record for use of the words “dick” and “fuck” — the profane repetition is only numbing. Hitting the horse harder doesn’t make you laugh at the abuser. It just makes you feel sorry for the horse.
“Hoops” Season 1 premieres Friday, August 21 on Netflix.
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