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Brockmire overcomes a one-joke baseball premise to be one of the year’s best new comedies

IFC’s new Hank Azaria vehicle is much funnier and looser than its online video roots might suggest.

Hank Azaria stars as Jim Brockmire, in his dandy suit.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that IFC’s new comedy Brockmire would run out of ideas about five minutes in.

For starters, it’s based on an online comedy sketch from Funny or Die. Or, to be more precise, it’s based on a funny character type developed by star Hank Azaria over the years and first unveiled by him in that sketch — a baseball announcer who describes everything in his life as if he’s calling a game. There’s precisely one joke in that premise, and you can probably think of almost every variation on it. (The TV series burns through those variations by the third installment of its eight-episode first season — I’ve seen ’em all.)

Then there’s the fact that the first few minutes of the series feature the title character as he suffers a breakdown in the booth, brought on by learning that his wife is having an affair, apparently not just with one person but with many. The smutty gags in this bit are tired, and it’s never clear why Brockmire himself is funny, as opposed to the content of his vindictive rant against his wife.

And, finally, Brockmire is centered on a minor-league baseball team, and try though it has, TV has never been able to come up with a good show about a baseball team. (RIP, Bay City Blues.)

But you know what? In the end, none of the above matters. Brockmire is fresh, funny, and winning. It has good jokes, good characters, and a surprising melancholy streak. It won’t be your absolute favorite new TV show, but in a crowded month for big drama debuts, it’s a refreshing new comedy that neither burns itself out by aiming too high nor bores the audience by aiming too low. Here are three key ways Brockmire succeeds.

1) The series builds a believable world around its central character

As I mentioned above, Jim Brockmire (Azaria) initially seems like a one-joke character. By the time he’s narrating his sexual technique while mid-coitus in episode two, you’ll have realized just how thin the character could have been.

But from the first episode on, Azaria and the series’ writers (headed up by creator Joel Church-Cooper, a Funny or Die vet) begin chipping away at that one joke to reveal the guy underneath. And the way they do this is by making sure they don’t turn every episode of the show into “Brockmire finds himself in some wacky situation and has a wacky time,” as would be so easy to do with a character like this.

Instead, they’re interested in the persistence of Brockmire’s world. He falls from announcing the major leagues to working for a minor-league team in Morristown, Pennsylvania, a town dealing with the terrible after effects of fracking gone wrong. The team is even called the Frackers — which is an improvement on its former name, the Savages, complete with a racist stereotype Native American mascot. That former team name is a big part of what defines Brockmire’s view of the world: This is a show about people who know they’ve done terrible things in the past and want to make amends, but aren’t entirely sure of the best way to do so.

Thus, Brockmire just becomes another colorful character in Morristown. He might be the show’s most overtly comic character, but he’s also able to play straight man when other characters need to be weird. And the faded glory of this little Pennsylvania town, as well as its hopes to return to the good old days, nicely play off of Brockmire’s own ambitions to return to the major leagues.

Hell, even the sport of baseball itself — which feels like a part of America’s past, even as it continues to be a going concern — acts as a kind of metaphor for the show as a whole. There’s a lot of bad stuff in the past, but there’s good stuff, too, and if you can find a way to bring it into the present, you’ll be rewarded.

2) The show tells lots of different types of jokes

Every character in Brockmire has a different sense of humor.

Brockmire does one of my favorite things a TV comedy can do, which is juggle a bunch of different types of jokes, without trying too hard. There’s gross-out humor. There’s clever wordplay. There are references to pop culture or sports figures. There are running gags built on the simple premise that longtime sports broadcaster Brent Musburger’s name is inherently funny to say. (It is!)

In short, Brockmire has something for everybody. I didn’t laugh at everything the show tries, but even the bits I didn’t like are well-crafted enough that they’ll appeal to somebody else — who might shrug at the ones I enjoyed.

And most importantly, the show gives everybody in its universe a comedic point-of-view. The jokes that Brockmire delivers are very different from the jokes that come from Frackers intern Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), a lonely geek who finds himself having to hang out with an old baseball announcer, or from David Walton’s comically evil businessman. Having a good set of genuinely funny characters to turn to makes for stronger joke writing, and Brockmire is a good case in point.

3) Brockmire develops a real pathos by the end

If there’s an element of Brockmire I didn’t buy as much as the show wanted me to, it’s the romance between Brockmire and the Frackers’ owner, Jules (a very game Amanda Peet, who plays drunk really well). Jules and Brockmire are drawn together because, in some ways, they both understand how they shouldn’t work as a couple, which only makes them more attracted to each other.

Brockmire’s small-town world feels refreshingly real.

But the story of their romance always feels a little grafted on — as if Brockmire were desperate to hit on exactly the elements that made Bull Durham such a great baseball movie. (Bull Durham had romance? Then by God, this show must have romance.)

And yet Brockmire uses Jules and Brockmire’s coupling to build the real story it’s telling: one of a town and people forgotten by the world and desperate to make themselves heard again. In its own way, the show emphasizes this in almost every character; most of them were convinced they’d fallen so far that they could never get back up, only to realize, as the series continues, that they can pick themselves up by helping the others around them stand up again as well.

That’s pretty standard underdog comedy stuff, but something about the old-timey nature of the rest of Brockmire’s premise lends it an extra sense of the bittersweet. The smartest thing the people behind this series realized is that comedy doesn’t work very well in a vacuum, and that they would need to build out a world and people in it to expand an online sketch into a TV show. And while not every moment works, Brockmire the TV series offers a world worth visiting, and characters worth rooting for, even when they stumble.

Brockmire airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on IFC.

Updated: To remove link to season premiere, which is no longer available on YouTube.

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