“Going from drunk asshole to sober asshole isn’t the makeover you think it is,” Jim Brockmire’s new broadcast partner Gabby tells him in the third season premiere of IFC’s astonishingly filthy — and even more astonishingly sincere — baseball comedy Brockmire.
Season One chronicled the return of the titular honey-voiced play-by-play man (Hank Azaria, never better in live action) from decades of debauched international exile following an on-air meltdown about his wife’s adultery. Starting over at rock bottom for a barely-viable indie league team, Brockmire rediscovered his love of baseball while making a new friend in Tyrel Jackson Williams’ anxious Charles and a new romantic interest in Amanda Peet’s similarly self-destructive Jules. Season Two saw Brockmire achieve a modest new level of success and fame (for both his baseball work and for a podcast where he colorfully told stories of his sex- and drug-fueled escapades), only to drive away Charles and everyone else who cared about him with his rampaging drug and alcohol abuse. Fearing death and/or utter loneliness, Brockmire checked into rehab and made a real go of it.
We return one year into his sobriety, at the start of spring training for Jim’s new job back in the big leagues(*). He is going to 12-step meetings, where his shares often come across as bragging to new sponsor Shirley (Martha Plimpton). He acquires a giant pet turtle, which he names Clemenza (after The Godfather), reconnects with his sister Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and tries to be a better partner and friend to Gabby (Tawny Newsome) than he has been to anyone who previously had the misfortune to work alongside him.
(*) As Brockmire creator Joel Church-Cooper told me last year, the show has “a complicated relationship with Major League Baseball.” MLB itself is explicitly mentioned, but Brockmire’s new team is only referred to as “Oakland,” and none of the logos or uniforms resemble that of the real-life Oakland A’s, which gives the show license to call this fictional team cheap without being yelled at by the real (and cheap) A’s ownership.
But as Gabby (a gay former softball star who has her own reasons for feeling like an outsider in the booth) points out, sobriety itself only takes Brockmire so far. He still prefers 16 words when two (or zero) will do, like his description of the legendary male anatomy of an ex-ballplayer known as Matt the Bat (J.K. Simmons): “There’s a density to it, Gabby. It’s like a windsock that’s been packed with wet sand.” He still has no proper sense of social boundaries, still elevates his own pain over that of others, still acts as the final arbiter on all things baseball and sex. (“Sixty-nine is objectively the worst sexual position!” he argues. “Nothing but a mouthful of pubes and a noseful of assholes!”) He is still a very hard man to love, even as a small army of new supporting characters (compensating for the fact that Peet and Williams are basically in one episode apiece this year) can’t resist trying.
Season Two was a necessary but dark part of Brockmire’s journey. Not surprisingly, it offered laughs much less frequently than the series’ first year. With Jim in a healthier place, albeit still a precarious one, the ratio of cartoon lunacy to pathos is back in wondrous balance. Church-Cooper and company find remarkable comedy in Jim experiencing familiar activities sober for the first time (sex included, with a friendly nurse played by Christine Woods). But they also dig even deeper into the fundamental brokenness that led Brockmire to blow up his life so often in the past, and into the ways his new support system forces him to look beyond himself. Gabby is primarily the straight man to Brockmire’s antics in the booth, but there’s something instantly endearing in the way each partner tries to support the other. And as Matt the Bat undergoes cancer treatment in the back half of the season, there’s a collection of scenes pairing Azaria with the great Simmons that are utterly poetic in how they capture two men of advancing age considering the time they have left. (“And I’m standin’ over the edge,” Matt confesses of his ever more fragile mortality, “and I don’t understand what I’m lookin’ at.”)
It’s amazing that Brockmire can go to such a sad, lovely, introspective place amid all the crude (if creative) jokes about sex, booze and inside-actual-baseball references (including a wonderful running gag about Ken Burns). As Brockmire struggles to regain relevance in a modern, anxiety-inducing world, the season even makes an elegant argument for the value of this old and slow sport in the age of smartphones and Peak TV. Both Brockmire the man and Brockmire the show are at their absolute best by the end of this season. We don’t deserve either of them.
Season Three premieres on April 3rd on IFC. I’ve seen all eight episodes.