Hank Azaria as Brockmire
Photo: IFC

In television, sometimes the most daring move is not to give the people what they want. During the back run of The Sopranos, when the series netted its highest audience share, creator David Chase deliberately piled anticlimax onto anticlimax and eschewed mob mechanics for dysfunctional family drama, inevitably frustrating viewers who were watching solely for the premium-cable violence and nudity. (“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” sneers an FBI agent in the opening scene of The Sopranos’ final season.) For the long-awaited return of Arrested Development on Netflix, Mitch Hurwitz separated one of the medium’s greatest ensemble casts, and effectively turned a scheduling dilemma into a hyperlinked fourth season specifically designed for the binge-watching era. (The recently released chronologically remixed version, though likely more accessible for syndication, fails to capture the quasi-experimental nature of the original cut.) Just last year, David Lynch and Mark Frost revived Twin Peaks on Showtime and outright refused to mete out fan service, neatly symbolized by relegating the series’ beloved protagonist to a vegetative state, in favor of crafting a fractured narrative with a radically different tone and aesthetic. Even in a televisual culture largely driven by niche viewership, the medium still thrives on audiences tuning in to see what they know and like. What happens if you challenge that desire?

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There’s a version of Brockmire that could have stayed pretty much the same. The series’ first season, following the eponymous baseball play-by-play announcer’s return to the booth after a decade-long hiatus spurred by a public meltdown over his wife’s infidelity, was a huge success for IFC. By the end of the season, it was the network’s highest-rated new series and cable’s most time-shifted new comedy. Besides, it had all of the elements in place. Star Hank Azaria had privately developed the Jim Brockmire character for years, and thus he appeared on screen fully formed. Series creator Joel Church-Cooper established a powerful setting for his protagonist’s redemption—Morristown, Pennsylvania, a small town so ravaged by natural-gas extraction that its minor-league team is named the Morristown Frackers—as well as a compelling cast of supporting characters: Jules (Amanda Peet), Morristown Frackers owner and Brockmire’s love interest; Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), the Frackers’ high school-aged head of digital media; and a litany of drunks, meth addicts, and oil company executives who fill out the rest of the town. Brockmire occasionally punctured its comedic exterior with melancholy and hints of outright despair (after all, it’s about a man trying to reverse his fall from grace while self-medicating with booze and drugs to manage his depression), but the tone of the first season remained light. It focused on jokes, albeit in a laughing-to-outrun-the-tears register, and a sincere love story between two people desperately trying to get over their respective humps. There’s no reason why Church-Cooper and Azaria couldn’t have made episode after episode featuring Brockmire getting drunk, calling baseball, and learning about what’s really important for multiple seasons.

But the strangest thing happened. In the second season, Brockmire changed settings, eliminated most of the supporting cast, and decided to embrace its depressive subtext. It’s a bold creative choice with some precedent. However, Brockmire went one step further: It turned the series’ most reliable source of comedy into the season’s dramatic fulcrum, all the while exploring what would happen if the show lost its most absorbing hook.

Photo: IFC

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Brockmire is a drunk. That’s who he is. He drinks before, during, and after games. But he’s a compelling drunk, someone who can hold a room together after a few rounds with hyper-articulate chatter and analysis. Moreover, people prefer when he drinks. He’s an exciting announcer precisely because he can make a slow, methodical sport entertaining just by describing it while half in the bag. Brockmire is a functional alcoholic who has leveraged his disease into professional success. Case in point: At the end of the first season, a New Orleans minor league team hires Brockmire on the basis of his viral drunken rants during games and on his podcast Brock Bottom.

It’s not a stretch to say that real-life audiences enjoy Brockmire at least partially for the same reasons. Azaria’s expert-level drunk acting garners laughs from even the smallest gestures—a raised eyebrow, an askew stance, a slight stumble—and, crucially, he doesn’t allow his faux inebriation to overwhelm his character’s other emotions. He’s believable as a functional alcoholic precisely because he can exhibit multiple different behaviors while still clearly under the influence. Furthermore, Brockmire celebrates drinking culture and revels in its characters’ excesses, illustrating the sheer pleasure of getting hammered for festive or somber reasons. Drinking has rarely looked more fun and exciting on television than in Brockmire.

However, chickens come home to roost in the second season. Brockmire moves to New Orleans with Charles for his new announcing gig, and he predictably embraces the city’s party culture. He only drinks beer during games, per his contract, but he also drinks upwards of a bottle of rye during live tapings of his podcast. He’s angling to take over for departing Atlanta announcer Art Newlie (Phil Reeves), but when the team’s new head of PR, Whitney (Dreama Walker), presents data that illustrates Brockmire’s middling likability, she pits him against away-game announcer Raj (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Now Brockmire has to compete with a younger, more likable person of color for a job that he thought was rightfully his, and subsequently, he finds more and more relief at the bottom of a bottle in the least appealing bars in the city. “Sometimes you just have to cut out those middlemen called ‘fun’ and ‘conversation’ and get straight to the booze,” he tells Charles, and though the line itself is funny, the sentiment isn’t played for laughs.

Just when Brockmire’s major league dreams seem lost, Charles crunches the numbers and discovers that Brockmire’s likability increases in the late innings, i.e., when he finally starts to get drunk after five-plus innings of beer. The two devise a plan to hide booze in office supplies—binoculars, stapler, pens—so that he can close the gap between him and Raj. Although the strategy ultimately helps Brockmire pull ahead, it’s exacerbating a drinking problem that has subtly shifted from manageable to dangerous. He leans on Charles to be his producer and his babysitter, shepherding him around the city and making sure he’s just sober enough in the booth following all-night benders. He invites former Morristown Fracker Pedro Uribe (Hemky Madera) down to New Orleans so he can be comfortably ensconced in the past. A trip back home for his father’s funeral gives Brockmire his first glimpse of what dying of alcoholism actually looks like. It doesn’t scare him sober, though. He just notes to “stay away from rum.”

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Ironically, it’s Brockmire’s sobriety that ultimately costs him the Atlanta gig. After Brockmire finally lands the job, Whitney discovers that he’s been secretly boozing in the booth and makes him promise to help call Newlie’s last game sober. Brockmire barely keeps it together alongside the aging broadcaster, but when Newlie starts spewing openly racist bile off air and coded racist bile on air, his nerves quickly fry. A drunken Whitney admits to Brockmire that the only reason he got the job was because Newlie wouldn’t step aside unless a white man replaced him. Sober, furious, and self-destructive, Brockmire calls out Newlie’s racism on air, and blows his major league chances for good. He returns to New Orleans to find that Charles has not only started a podcast empire without him, but that he also has no interest in being his roommate or makeshift life assistant any longer. Brockmire finally dives into the deep end of his alcoholism without anyone to help him come up for air.

Photo: IFC

“People only like me when I am drunk!” Brockmire snarls to Charles, following a doctor’s confirmation of severe liver damage and a subsequently botched intervention. It’s a heartbreaking admission of an addict’s fears of giving up his vice, but it’s also a fairly pointed meta-commentary about the show itself. Is Brockmire still Brockmire if its lead isn’t “pontifidrinking” in every episode? What does the show even look like without its lead character’s most “likable” personality trait? Brockmire correctly deduces that drinking is responsible for all the good things in his life—professional success, sure, but also his relationship with Jules was built on their shared love of the bottle—but it’s also responsible for why Brockmire the show became a quick hit. Charles knows that Brockmire will die if he doesn’t stop drinking, but if he does stop, maybe the show dies as well. “I don’t know who the hell I would be if I was sober,” he says, “but I do know nobody would give a shit about that guy, whoever he is.”

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Well, Church-Cooper, Azaria, and IFC are all banking on someone giving a shit, especially because the series has been renewed for a third and a fourth season. Brockmire ends its second season with Brockmire hitting his real bottom (shacking up with a suicidal addict who ends up in the hospital after a game of Russian roulette gone wrong) followed by a one-year time jump where it’s revealed that he’s been living and working at a rehab center. Charles visits him and tells him that Oakland wants to bring him on as a fill-in announcer and sell it as a redemption story. Even Jules returns to the fold and promises to help him get settled in the new job. In the end, some people still want to hear what he has to say.

Brockmire could have easily plied its viewers with more booze until they were unconscious, but it gave them medicine instead, and, in turn, blew up a part of the show’s core identity. Now, obviously the show still has Azaria, and many elements of the Brockmire character remain intact (case in point: Brockmire unloads on a fellow rehab patient for his impatience with Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge), but it’s an act of denial to pretend that the character’s drinking habit wasn’t crucial to the series. (In fact, there have only been a handful of scenes that feature a sober Brockmire at all.) Yet Church-Cooper not only hit the reset button, but he also built a season around that very decision. Next season will likely feature a new setting and a new supporting cast, but it will also feature a very different Brockmire. If Brockmire follows a broken man’s return to grace, then maybe all it took to grasp it was abandoning his defining characteristic.