One of the crown jewels in IFC’s original programming lineup is their category-eluding “Documentary Now!,” a dutiful series of pitch-perfect documentary parodies that, by some great beneficence, has managed to stay on air for multiple seasons. On its surface, some of that show’s standout elements also power “Brockmire,” the network’s new comedy focusing on a fallen baseball play-by-play announcer who’s given a second chance with a minor league outfit.
While lower-level professional sports has a fandom as niche as that for classic nonfiction filmmaking — complete with a specific visual style and an upper echelon of legendary figures — the eight-episode first season still struggles to find the level of specificity that makes other IFC comedies hum.
“Brockmire” still has its appeals: As the title character, Hank Azaria brings that same level of verbal versatility and comedic bona fides that Bill Hader and Fred Armisen bring to their program. He makes a memorable first impression, introducing Jim Brockmire in a big-league booth as he sprinkles in lurid details of his wife’s illicit group sex romp amidst the (ahem) balls and strikes. Fueled by a steady stream of on-the-rocks liquor and the despair over his wife’s affair, the incident kicks off a downward spiral that finds him reemerging 10 years later in the minor-league climes of Morristown, Pennsylvania.
Brockmire’s throwback announcing style, his wife’s infidelities and even his plaid blazer/carnation combo are all taken from a May 2010 Funny or Die installment introducing the character. (The best joke delivery that didn’t make the jump to the series: his nonsensical hit-by-pitch call “Oh, Wilmer ValderRAMA, that musta hurt!”) Whether subconsciously or directly, the intervening seven years have given Azaria and writer Joel Church-Cooper a chance to build a backstory beyond the voice, one that’s led Brockmire to some dark places. Azaria’s dexterity for impersonation and commitment to the absurdity of a past-glory baseball man announcing his various daily interactions is a handy anchor for a five-minute segment.
With the combined powers of the ever-committed Amanda Peet, the two are more than enough to carry an eight-episode series all on their own. As Jules, the impassioned, cash-strapped owner of the Morristown Frackers, Peet excels as the only individual wily enough to lure Brockmire to her corner of Pennsylvania, much less keep him there. When Brockmire quickly realizes that his hiring was more publicity stunt than second chance, Jules’ charms convince him to stay and become invested in the team’s success.
Those charms also help dispatch the “will-they, won’t-they” tension with lightning speed. Jules and Brockmire’s chemistry isn’t exactly torrid, but their empathy toward each other’s dead-end situation shines through in some genuinely affectionate moments. Neither character shies away from their checkered histories, and the matter-of-fact nature of their flirtation serves as a welcome antidote to the outrageousness that quickly begins to swirl around them.
Aside from the playful romance at the center, “Brockmire” has a past that’s consistently more intriguing than its future. As each episode opens with a flashback to a different time in Brockmire’s life, it’s easier to understand the part of him that still longs for something beyond the Morristown city limits. Morristown itself is a nondescript small Pennsylvania town marked by little else besides a running gag about the fracking city’s flammability. The regular insert shots of the stadium bleachers are rarely more than standard reactions from awkwardly corralled extras.
As far as the product on the field, the team is understandably uninspired. In the world of minor league baseball, independent ball teams are often an inconsistent assemblage of peculiar misfits and players long past their prime. (For a fascinating perspective on what it’s like to actually run one of these organizations, read Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller’s “The Only Rule Is It Has to Work.”) The Frackers are no different, checking off all the requisite boxes for a mismatched ensemble of heavily accented oddballs, twig-thin misfits, and a handful of generic bearded dudes to fill out the roster.
Azaria fully harnesses Brockmire’s odd charisma, but having him front and center at all times weighs down the show’s ability to flesh out most of this supporting cast of characters. It takes nearly five episodes for anyone not directly involved with the team to make a significant repeat appearance. Even Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), the Frackers’ baseball-oblivious intern is forced to wait nearly the whole season for a B-plot that doesn’t involve his having to respond to Brockmire’s various foibles. With a lackluster squad and a fan base treated as an undifferentiated blob, that leaves a short list of memorable faces in a town small enough to have plenty more.
One common hurdle that baseball-themed entertainment often faces is that for the average viewer, few baseball games are actually remarkable. “Brockmire” runs into the same resulting paradox: Every narrative trick that helps make these games more interesting are the very things that make them feel forced and undeserved. Whether it’s the crowds reaction to the action on the field or the escalating particulars of a petty feud, “Brockmire” never pinpoints the optimum level of magnitude for any given moment. When the announcer in the booth is tipsily opining on philosophy and picking fights with the Frackers’ rivals, few things short of an on-field brawl can keep up.
The necessity for everyone to meet Brockmire on his specific level of outrageousness permeates even the non-baseball elements of the show. The Brockmire/Jules scenes work so well because the show can finally indulge its sincere side before letting Azaria deflate things with an impeccably delivered one-liner. But when Brockmire has to venture into the clubhouse to settle a team dispute, every player is already a caricature. Without a straight man, Brockmire’s barbs get lost in a sea of oneupmanship.
Much like Brockmire’s conflicting impulses to get out of town and back to the national spotlight, the show seems insistent on connecting this washed-up announcer to a vast internet culture he doesn’t understand. That makes sense for a show co-produced by Funny or Die, but the simple web-based gags always get reductive short shrift. (The now-defunct Vine gets a handful of references here in an illustrative test case of how internet trends far outpace the production schedule of a TV series.)
For fans of the sport, the seventh episode in this show’s run might be the most literal “inside baseball” TV episode ever made. With on-air sports personalities ranging from MLB Network hosts to a slew of former SportsCenter anchors, another area where the show succeeds is getting the actual professionals in on the joke.
It’s the series’ best episode not just because it’s the most self-aware, but because it has the built-in benefit of tapping into something real. When the show goes broad, as it often does with the Morristown citizens and the changing demographics of Frackers attendance, it loses the kind of spark that would likely win over viewers who don’t normally tune into sports-adjacent shows. Baseball is its own world where outsized characters are more than welcome, but as exciting as a wild pitch can be, more than a few can make for a slow game.
“Brockmire” premieres Wednesday, April 5 at 10 p.m. on IFC.