Hank Azaria has spent his career playing some kind or another of comic relief — whether that is his well-known voice acting work on “The Simpsons” or his live-action arcs on shows like “Mad About You” and “Friends.” He has the remarkable ability to mold his voice to any number of situations and characters, some less culturally sensitive than others; it makes him a kind of chameleon of a comic actor, one where his own voice is sometimes hard to hear underneath all the impressions.
Which is why it is so fitting — and unexpectedly affecting — that Azaria plays a plaid-blazer wearing baseball announcer named Jim Brockmire, whose biggest claim to fame is an on-air meltdown he had in 2007,
hours after discovering his wife in a compromising position. The show begins after 10 years of exile abroad, when he returns stateside only to discover that his greatest disgrace has become one of the first viral memes. (His extremely specific description of the state in which he found his wife led to her name becoming a slangy verb for — uh, it involves a strap-on.)
In the intervening decade, Brockmire’s become (even more of) a drunk and an a–hole, charming and toxic, willing to do pretty much anything to keep himself in plaid sports coats and top shelf liquor. It’s this shameless desperation that leads to the nonspecific American town named Morristown, somewhere that time and economic progress appears to have forgotten. Morristown is so defined by corporations’ rapacious efforts to glean shale oil from its bedrock that their minor league baseball team is called the Frackers. The team’s owner, Jules (Amanda Peet), has a vision for what a revitalized baseball team could do for her overlooked and ignored hometown. But she also just really likes to get drunk and fool around, with that good-girl, small-town charm that Peet in particular is so good at selling.
“Brockmire” is the story of how Brockmire the man begins to try to make peace with himself; it’s one part sports inspiration story, another part Lifetime movie about finding love in a small town, but mostly it’s an assured, character-driven comedy, with a kind of raw humor that’s less vulgar than it is painfully intimate. (Weirdly, it’s a lot like “BoJack Horseman,” Netflix’s animated comedy about an addict’s midlife crisis in the unforgiving landscape of fame.) The eight episodes— each of which starts with a flashback — observe several disparate thematic arcs, like the teammate dynamics of the Frackers or the love life of sports-clueless “production intern” Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams). But the comedy does not lose sight of its ultimate interest, which is the make and measure of the uniquely pathetic man called Brockmire. The first season ends with a kind of bittersweet realism that is more in line with prestige comedies like “Girls” and “Atlanta” than it is with “Brockmire’s” sister show on IFC, “Portlandia.”
And despite the inherent tragedies of being a rust-belt minor-league alcoholic baseball announcer, “Brockmire” is quite a lot of fun to watch. Partly that is because it is exceptionally critical of its protagonist, looking for opportunities to expose his hypocrisies. And partly that is because “Brockmire’s” comedic sensibility tends towards hyper-relevant surreality — again, like “BoJack Horseman.” Just when you think a live-action show can’t attain the level of surreal comedy that animation can, “Brockmire” sets the cold open of an episode in a gauzy Tagalog action-drama called “Hart to Hart.” (The actress who plays his wife has one line: “I am your wife.”)
Azaria has made more serious efforts before — such as in “Huff,” from 2004, and “Free Agents,” in 2011, which costarred Kathryn Hahn. Both explore the tragicomic, from different angles. “Brockmire” feels more vital than either of these. In addition to the surprisingly human sensibility it has for what baseball, or any other beloved sport, means to people in a small town, it seems to be also about Azaria reflecting on his own career, albeit with quite a bit of levity. After all, a baseball announcer, for most sports fans, is just a voice — a voice attached to something bigger and more meaningful, but a voice nonetheless. And Brockmire believes in the voice: He doesn’t stop announcing off the field, commenting on the world around him, and his own perplexing behavior, with the same All-American twang and odd sports lingo that he directs to the field.
“Brockmire” is a weird, funny portrait of a singular man, and it paints its picture very well — working both as a snapshot of this aging oddity of Americana and a universal story about a washed-up person coming to terms with himself, despite several drunken efforts to the contrary.