There’s a point in Season 2 of the IFC series “Brockmire” when the title character comes to the realization that people like him best when he’s drunk. For anyone who watched the first eight episodes of the show last summer, that was a belief that seemed to be held by the show’s creative team as well. So it’s equal parts surprising and satisfying to see so many assumptions that the show made in its initial run get re-examined, now that the show about a rehabilitating baseball announcer has returned. From the way it handles addiction to how it utilizes the outsized personality at its core, these new episodes are a major improvement in nearly every single way.
With Hank Azaria in the role of Jim Brockmire, a substance-adoring, golden-voiced pinnacle of play-by-play debauchery, this show has a Swiss Army knife at its disposal. Azaria has always served the character in the way that the show has asked him to, sinking his teeth into lengthy diatribes and not-so-lonely soliloquies. Both in character and performance, there’s something incredible about the way he can give equal frisson to invoking a laundry list of past bacchanals and Kansas City Royals relief pitchers from the 1980s.
But where Season 1 got most of its power from having unexpected drug-induced anecdotes delivered in an announcer’s voice, “Brockmire” Season 2 truly focuses on the person underneath all those affects. Given the emotional range and self-awareness that both character and show have found, it’s like picking up that knife and discovering for the first time that it also has a toothpick, a screwdriver, and a corkscrew. (Coincidentally, those are also probably names of alcohol and drug cocktails that Brockmire himself has sampled on plenty of occasions.)
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After losing the most meaningful connection of his life (Amanda Peet’s Jules) and relocating to New Orleans from last season’s Pennsylvania fracking town, it’s clear that Brockmire has a greater sense of his own mortality. Between news from family members and a couple of unfortunate mishaps, this is someone pursuing his own means of self-medication without the blissful ignorance of the past.
Starting from the premise of a sketch character, the default for Season 1 was always to make Brockmire bigger. Pass him a new hallucinogen, add another woman to the list of his revolving door of sexual adventures. For anyone who saw that as a reason to tune into the first season, don’t worry: A more thoughtful Brockmire doesn’t mean a tamer one. This show still delights in pushing the limits of what can be referred to, shown, or heard happening just off-screen. But rather than working so hard to build a larger-than-life character, the show’s energies have pushed inward to find the root of all that excess. Even when Brockmire isn’t concerned with why he does what he does, “Brockmire” returns as a stronger comedy because it never loses sight of that.
Part of that journey means bringing Brockmire (and “Brockmire”) out of the booth. He still gets to don the plaid blazer and take a seat behind the mic, dropping some boundary-pushing offhand remarks in amongst his calls. But what started as a silly podcast subplot last year has suddenly become one of the cornerstones for a more show far more in touch with its emotions. The podcast-within-a-show Brock Bottom (that lead to some quality Ira Glass and Stamps.com jokes last year) has now evolved into a “Harmontown”-esque opportunity for introspection. The sold-out tapings, filmed like an off-Broadway one-man show is a place where its host runs through his past experiences, regrets, and shortcomings. Whether drinking a whole handle of Jack helps or hurts Brockmire within the series, it’s a far more effective and meaningful use of his chatty nature then him narrating his own life sitting at a bar for hours on end.
The old-time baseball voice is where the character came from, but that Mel Allen intonation no longer feels like a crutch. Azaria has built a career on stretching out his larynx for any number of characters, but that success is always come hand-in-hand with grounding each performance in some semblance of truth. When that happens, he’s part of creating something iconic. When it doesn’t, that’s when things run into into trouble.
With a more firmly grounded Brockmire, the rest of the cast don’t have strain themselves to avoid it seeming like any given scene features characters from two different shows. Newcomer announcer Raj (Utkarsh Ambudkar), assistant/producer/roommate/tripsitter Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams), and franchise PR rep Whitney (Dreama Walker) aren’t stuck playing mere foils to a guy who subsists on grain alcohol and weapons-grade Viagra. By this point, everyone around him has largely settled into an acceptance of who he is, rather than a series of successive scenes designed only to show how outrageous he can be.
What’s kind of incredible is that the thing that made Season 1 most worth watching isn’t exactly around much in a better overall season. That instant chemistry between Azaria and Peet isn’t what the show is based on anymore, but the same driving force that made that storyline so compelling before — watching what a man wrestling with his own obsolescence does when given a chance to do some good in this world — has now crept into all of Brockmire’s interactions, whether romantic or otherwise.
It’s an evolution that worked wonders for “BoJack Horseman,” focusing less on calling attention to a washed-up character’s fame and more about the self-denial and self-destruction that lurks behind it. Whether it’s Charles or the fans who determine his future, “Brockmire” Season 2 takes a deep look at how Brockmire’s dependence on people to validate and enable his life is just as strong as the pull he feels to drinking and dosing.
And where baseball was once an Achilles’ heel, by season’s end, “Brockmire” manages to also work in some unexpected critiques of how some people within the game treat progress within the game itself. Because this show is so tied to the exploits and understanding of its central figure, as he expands his horizons, the show benefits from that same perspective.
All of this builds toward some late-season developments that maintain the show’s DNA, while emphasizing much of what Brockmire’s journey has been building to for a while. “Brockmire” has always been able to deliver some of the best jokes around (wait until you get to hear Azaria luxuriate inside a Roberto Benigni one-liner), but now one of the funniest shows on TV is becoming one of its most thoughtful.
“Brockmire” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on IFC.