Jim Brockmire needs a win, a drink, and a penicillin booster, probably in the opposite order. Played by Hank Azaria, Brockmire is a disgraced play-by-play man who fell off the face of the earth after the discovery of his wife’s infidelity bled its way into his call of a professional ball game. After spending a decade drinking, using, and fucking his way across the Pacific Ocean, Brockmire reemerges in Morristown, Pennsylvania, an economically depressed notch on the Rust Belt staking its comeback to one of two American institutions: the energy concern that’s fracking the hell out of the shale beneath Morristown, and the local minor league baseball team that rebranded itself in honor of the new local vocation.
But “Morristown Frackers” only sounds like a distasteful team until you get a load of the logo for the squad’s previous incarnation, the Morristown Savages. Both are indicative of Brockmire’s jaundiced sense of humor, which, combined with the subject matter and the self-destructive protagonist, invites comparisons to HBO’s Eastbound & Down. He has a cartoon voice, but Jim Brockmire’s less of a living cartoon than Kenny Powers—Azaria plays his character with a vulnerability that Brockmire tries to smother in rye whiskey and loud plaid. And, really, if you want to hang baseball-comedy touchstones on Brockmire, you don’t have to stop at Eastbound & Down: The series has the lived-in minor league milieu of Bull Durham, and the Frackers’ owner, Julia James (Amanda Peet) is like the mirror image of Margaret Whitton from Major League. Jules (as she likes to be called) is attempting to save her team and her hometown by keeping attendance up with the help of creative stunts and giveaways, and her latest stroke of Bill Veeck-esque inspiration involves bringing Jim Brockmire out of retirement and handing him the keys to her stadium’s press box.
Brockmire’s stroke of inspiration, meanwhile, is all in the metaphor. Brockmire, the Frackers, and Morristown are all essentially the same thing, which is to say they’re also baseball and American manufacturing: powerful cultural forces of yesterday, reduced to laughingstocks and bargaining chips today. Morristown isn’t a place anyone wants to be, but it is somewhere lots of people have ended up, and Brockmire finds the properly weathered appearance for that feeling of purgatory on earth. Contrasted with the full-color spectrum of flashbacks to Jim’s good old days, Morristown is cast in mustard yellows and muddy browns, the better to match the Frackers’ retro-chic unis and the announcer’s ever-present bottle of hooch. Brockmire is smart about its world-building, giving Jules a peculiar (and unspoken) taste for iced white wine and weaving a tragicomic tapestry of anecdotes from Brockmire’s lost decade. If it’s possible for a show to look like a hangover, then Brockmire does it.
Azaria’s nearly three-decade tenure on The Simpsons is dotted with starring roles in briefly lived live-action series (and Emmy-nominated guest spots on Mad About You and Friends), but none have suited his physical and vocal expressiveness quite like Brockmire. The man makes his living behind a microphone, and he may be slowly dying inside, but Azaria signals the fire that’s still inside Jim: the light in his eyes sparked by on-field action, the slumped-shouldered defeat whenever he’s told that no one cares about baseball anymore. Brockmire is a product of a Funny Or Die sketch (which forms the basis of the series’ prologue), but Brockmire gives him more than a public meltdown and a funny way of smoothly transitioning from devastating personal news to balls and strikes. Jules represents a second chance for Jim and a second lead for the show, a character who’s slightly underwritten but gets by on a Peet performance that’s all pluck and grit. (It’s a long wait, but she gets her spotlight moment in episode six, which dredges some dark shit for Brockmire’s biggest laughs and deepest sobs.) Frackers intern Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), meanwhile, serves as the voice of reason, leavening Jules’ optimism and dragging Brockmire into 2017.
The trio forms a strong core for Brockmire, and it’s only when the show strays too far from their inner circle that the show fails to connect. The conflict between Jules and a sinister natural-gas company looks to be a major component of the first season, until it isn’t—though it does serve up an oily David Walton as the exec trying to frack every last dime out of Morristown. Jules has stocked the Frackers roster with players whose careers have gone the way of Jim’s, but their personalities only truly come into play in one episode, the setup for which is catnip for TV and baseball nerds alike: A 12 Angry Men-style bottle episode hinging on the locker-room tradition of a kangaroo court. Jim’s estranged wife, Lucy (Kate Finneran), eventually shows up, too, though Brockmire, like Brockmire, is better served when moving forward and not looking back.
Brockmire doesn’t throw a perfect game on its first trip to the mound, but it gets most of its pitches across the plate—and even delivers some surprising dramatic brushbacks. And while America’s erstwhile pastime might pump through Jim Brockmire’s blood, an interest in the sport isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the show. It might enhance your experience if you see a little bit of 1970s San Diego Padres in the Frackers’ team colors, but anybody can see the DNA of a comeback story in Brockmire’s arc. And while he’s working toward the upswing, you are invited to, as the man himself says, laugh at his pain.
Developed by: Joel Church-Cooper (based on the character created by Hank Azaria)
Starring: Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet, Tyrel Jackson Williams
Debuts: Wednesday, April 5, at 10 p.m. on IFC
Format: Single-camera comedy
Complete first season watched for review