There’s a part of Brockmire star Hank Azaria that misses playing the show’s title character, Jim Brockmire, as perpetually wasted. Azaria worked for years to get the act down (he created the character years before the series began), getting laughs as the deeply debauched, dysfunctional, and wildly inappropriate baseball play by play man on a seemingly endless bender/corkscrew into an early grave.
At the end of season two, however, something changed for the character and the show — Jim Brockmire needed to take sobriety seriously. And in season three, that has continued, giving the character a new purpose, a new support structure (highlighted by Tawny Newsome as Brockmire’s new boothmate), and a fifth or sixth chance to shine in his career. All that without altering the character so severely that he might lose his cranky charm or his crude mastery of the English language as he continues to be wildly inappropriate. But while Azaria has come to like playing this version of Brockmire better, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a measure of initial apprehension.
“In the same way performers and artists (with alcohol and drug problems) worry that they won’t be as funny or as creative if they aren’t wasted, I worried about that for the character of Brockmire,” Azaria said when we spoke while overlooking a rain-soaked diamond at Citi Field in late April. Yet, despite that weariness, Azaria believes season three is the show’s best season, adding, “I’m not just saying that because I’m promoting the show.”
I’m inclined to agree with Azaria about the state of things on Brockmire as season three gets ready to close things out for the offseason (the season three finale airs tonight on IFC at 10pm EST), but that’s not to dismiss the first two seasons of the show. The real world is full of misbehaving middle-aged men, but a wounded and gin-soaked misanthrope can still hit the spot in fiction if you know how to wield that tool (pun intended) properly, as Brockmire has. It helps, of course, that the show is set in the oft-conjured weirdo world of baseball purgatory, where misfit toys seem to fit so well (Bull Durham, Eastbound And Down, even Major League if you discount the fact that that team of losers was actually in the majors). But Brockmire went beyond where most others have gone (well, maybe not beyond the un-killable Kenny Powers), embracing a cartoonish level of recklessness during the show’s second season with New Orleans as the primary playground. And that, in hindsight, while still fun and funny, had the show on an express train toward becoming stagnant.
“To push it to another season, to me, felt like we were going to start repeating ourselves, and start going down an unrealistic path,” said Joel Church-Cooper, Brockmire‘s creator and showrunner, when we spoke recently. “Having him face the consequence of ‘you’re going to have to get sober or you’re going to have to die…’ that brought the show back to the sort of tone that really works for us. A show that is as grounded in reality as a show that tries to make you laugh out loud can be.”
Part of that more grounded approach meant giving Brockmire something to believe in besides himself. Baseball, always a massive part of the show and the character’s identity, fit the bill. And that’s not surprising considering the passion both Azaria and Church-Cooper feel for the game. While the former grew up a Mets fan and recounts the names of old announcers like Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy, and Lindsey Nelson like cherished storytellers, it’s Church-Cooper (a life-long Giants fan) who bends my ear for a large portion of our time talking about the state of the game. To Church-Cooper, baseball is losing its chance to hook young viewers due, in part, to changes like longer games, a lack of diversity, an obsession with analytics, and an aversion to players showing emotion and having fun. Being able to freely comment on those things within the show is part of the reason why Church-Cooper is content to have a cordial relationship with people in and around Major League Baseball, but not necessarily an official one with the league due to the assumed creative limitations that might come with it. And that’s something that is made clear when watching the season finale and seeing how it deals with homophobia and bigotry in and around baseball as it pertains to Newsome’s lesbian character, who recently outed herself on the air.
“I think we’re trying to show both extremes,” Church-Cooper says, adding, “we have a scene dedicated to baseball’s religion, and then we have a bunch of other things pointing out the ridiculousness of devoting your life to the game and the current state of the game.”
The aforementioned “baseball religion” scene from last week’s episode is a powerful one, buoying the spirits of a rival turned friend (J.K. Simmons, a recurring guest star this season as Matt The Bat, rival announcer) as he sits up in his death bed. It also offers Jim Brockmire an obvious revelation that feels earned after all he’s been through across the run of the show; from rebuilding his career in the booth after a divorce and an on-air meltdown to losing a new love and now wrestling with sobriety and things that threaten his vision of himself as competent in the booth and the bedroom.
Seeing is believing, of course, but in the absence of video, here are the words from that exchange between Matt and Brockmire, which stands out as a lovely bit of poetry if you’re a baseball fan.
“That’s a god I could believe in: a baseball god.”
“Yes. The kind of God that demands that all his churches be parks.”
“A God that forces you to play outside on a nice day.”
“Doesn’t keep time because our actions should determine our fate and not some stupid clock.
“A God who keeps us humble my making us play a game that’s steeped in failure. That’s the kind of God that I’d worship.”
Is it odd to see a show talk about religion when, a month ago, it was being maligned by Fox News and others for its main character’s dismissiveness toward mainstream religion and God? That all depends on how you define the thing, I guess.
“I think that the best part of religion is that sense of community and sense of serving your own community,” says Church-Cooper. “The idea that Brockmire has been a part of a community this entire time, and that he has been serving it, but he just doesn’t realize it, and he hasn’t dedicated his life fully to it… Having him realize that, and that he is a part of something decent and has been his whole life; and that it’s something he’s worshiped and [will] continue to do so, and have that be a binding element to his life, and having a humanist spirituality to it… I was really happy with how that came out.”
Of course, losing the bottle and re-finding the religion of baseball doesn’t mean that Jim Brockmire is going to be a saint or that it’s going to be smooth sailing from here on out. Jim Brockmire is still an asshole in a world of assholes (both real and fictional ). But as Church-Cooper explains it, Brockmire is, at least, “an asshole who’s trying to get better.” Which, as season three has shown, means he’s an asshole worth rooting for.