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‘Being Serena’ Review: The Greatest Athlete Alive Gets a Limited, Personal HBO Show All Her Own

It may not be an effective traditional documentary, but this Serena Williams series clearly has something else in mind.

Being Serena HBO

“Being Serena”


If you watch the credits of “Being Serena,” the new HBO documentary series about living tennis legend Serena Williams, you’ll find one thing missing: a director. In a way, that makes sense, since “Being Serena” isn’t so much an outside look at Williams’ life as it is a personal log of one of the more challenging chapters of it. Charting her journey from an Australian Open title through a surprise pregnancy and a planned wedding, this series is rarely more than some loose, well-produced home videos. But as a way to bolster a perception of someone who (figuratively and in some cases literally) never really stops, this is an effective window.

The director of “Being Serena” might as well be Williams’ voiceover, which bookends each half-hour episode and is sprinkled liberally throughout. Played behind slow-motion footage of Williams getting therapeutic treatment, painting in her backyard or posing with future husband Alexis Ohanian, her narration is as controlled as the gloss over all the exquisitely shot tennis courts and rectangle pools.

The first two episodes, which center on Williams’ pregnancy, hop between the glow of impending motherhood and the unremarkable parts of the path to get there. Her determination to get through this stage and be the best mother she can be doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity. “Being Serena” is largely driven by a commitment to her training and a consistency in presenting an image of Williams’ relentlessness, so anyone looking for unguarded moments won’t find many.

The sleak, overproduced parts of “Being Serena” give the whole family a chance to present a version of themselves that’s in control of life. Any insight that “Being Serena” offers to what the title promises is filtered through her own words. Most times, it’s about the standard she sets for herself, told from the perspective of someone who’s achieved more on a tennis court than anyone else in the last century and a half.

Being Serena HBO Documentary

“Being Serena”


But every once in a while, a phrase or reaction slips through that hints at something else. “I didn’t even want to win Australia,” Williams says of the major global tennis tournament she won while eight weeks pregnant with her daughter. When Ohanian says something about their child winning Wimbledon 15 or 20 years from now, Williams jokes that it’ll only happen if she’s not still on tour. She even brings up the idea of having another baby mere minutes after leaving the hospital.

Even if the series doesn’t have momentum, there’s always the sense that her life is moving forward. Every individual scene exists to vault things forward to the next goal, the next stage, the next interview. So the value of a series about her life isn’t exactly built on the same kinds of moments that a standard show about an athlete might. As even she notes, giving birth to a baby seems like a simple task, when compared to besting literally every other woman on the planet in her chosen field.

Williams’ pregnancy complications are a serious scare for the family, but in the context of a show continuously moving forward, that sense of danger dissipates quickly. Like that Australian Open win, it’s not just a question of whether she’ll be triumphant, but whether she can do it while maximizing the extent to which she comes out victorious.

So seeing “Being Serena” as a documentary about what Williams’ life is really like all depends on perception. If she’s using the tools at her disposal to offer up a chronicle of hand-selected glimpses at a road back to the top, then she’s succeeded in her goal. But as a viewing experience for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a world-class athlete, there’s a significant layer missing. Access doesn’t necessarily translate to a compelling series. Absent much of the drama that comes with uncertainty, there’s not much in the series to really latch onto.

There’s something still striking about seeing an important figure in the sports world subvert any existing perception that having a child is somehow a point of weakness. “Being Serena” might not surround this family portrait with much more understanding than the words that she says for herself. Basking in the achievements of one person isn’t quite enough to sustain a series all on its own, but “Being Serena” still has a champion at its center.

Grade: B-

“Being Serena” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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