'Sneakerheads': TV Review

Authenticity and fun cameos battle general narrative clunkiness.

Allen Maldonado leads a solid cast in Netflix's six-episode comic examination of sneaker culture.

The third episode of Sneakerheads, Netflix's new half-hour shoe aficionado comedy, features one of my favorite pieces of tricky, oddball celebrity guest casting in recent memory.

The best comparison I can make, every bit as inside baseball as the Sneakerheads cameo, was Adrien Brody's appearance as himself on Showtime's short-lived Andrew Dice Clay vehicle Dice, a turn that left me conflicted because I loved that episode but wasn't fully prepared to endorse the rest of the show around it.

Overall, Sneakerheads is a mixed bag, fitting into the often-neglected subgenre of fashion-based shows aimed at straight guys, like a West Coast version of HBO's denim-centric How To Make It in America. It's boosted by a strong sense of the argot of the sneaker-collecting world and a likable central turn from Allen Maldonado, but with an ultra-brief six-episode season, the show's struggles to bring dimension to its female characters and an icky vein of homophobia really stand out.

Maldonado, so good on Black-ish, The Last O.G. and Survivor's Remorse, stars as Devin. Formerly addicted to the high-octane world of rare sneaker collecting, Devin battled bankruptcy and is now a stay-at-home dad of two, married to aspiring lawyer Christine (Yaani King Mondschein), whose hands-on-hips, head-shaking contempt for his sneakerhead past gives her all the depth of a disapproving CBS sitcom wife. Devin dips his toe back into the sneaker game in an effort to land an ultra-exclusive shoe from his past and is reunited with his former best friend, Bobby (Andrew Bachelor). A fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants wastrel, Bobby represents the highs and lows of Devin's old life, plus Christine hates him for reasons that turn out to be entirely justified.

Christine and other characters who don't get the sneakerhead lifestyle view collectors as nostalgia-starved man-children. So Sneakerheads positions itself in a strange middle ground where it's trying to appeal to actual sneakerheads and speak their language while being defensive on their behalf for neophyte audiences, who probably aren't watching anyway. The sneakerhead audience is being appealed to with a steady string of guests who are big names in the subculture, including footwear designer Jon Buscemi and shoe-care pioneer icon Jason Markk (plus countless athletes and public personalities who have to be introduced with "Hey, aren't you..." obviousness). The neophytes are being catered to with a six-episode quest narrative as Devin, Bobby, plucky footwear dealer Nori (Jearnest Corchado) and easily mockable wannabe Stuey (Matthew Josten) go in search of the Zeroes, a Holy Grail sneaker that might help Devin get out of debt.

As clunky as the quest may be narratively — the whole series is an ungainly mixture of unforced authenticity and logic-defying contrivance — it gives series director Dave Meyers room to navigate through several rarely depicted corners of Los Angeles, plus one international location. Sneakerheads moves swiftly and fluidly from pop-ups in the Fairfax District to downtown back alleys to mansions in the Hollywood Hills (including the home of the personality in that aforementioned goofy cameo, which I'm betting the show's target demographic won't even understand).

I'd have happily traded much of the plot for a little more character development, especially with the women. If you've watched Lena Waithe's Quibi series You Ain't Got These — and, it being a Quibi series, you probably have not — you know there are inclusive veins of sneaker culture, so the series can't really explain the need for a strange secret that Nori is keeping. And when Christine tries to understand Devin's interest in this world, it's genuinely embarrassing that the only way the series can explain it to her is by sending that character on her own quest, this one for hard-to-find purses. Ugh.

This happens around the same time that Sneakerheads is finally beginning to make sense of some of its other relationships, which is good, while embarking on a running gay-panic joke involving an offscreen celebrity, which is bad. There's a big creative team on this series, which was created by the relatively inexperienced Jay Longino (Uncle Drew), and I think it could have benefited from a more confident development hand at Netflix.

The real potential lies with the cast, especially in the energy between Maldonado, equally comfortable with comic and dramatic beats, and Bachelor, who improves steadily after starting the series stuck in a needless Chris Tucker impression. Corchado is good despite the show's having very little sense of her character's voice. When she and Josten interact, his character feels less cartoonishly nerdy.

At least it doesn't take long to get through Sneakerheads. Or you can just skip to the celebrity cameo — sorry for the needless overhyping — in the third episode and the unexpected travel in the fifth.

Stars: Allen Maldonado, Andrew Bachelor, Jearnest Corchado, Matthew Josten, Yaani King Mondschein, Justin Lee, Aja Evans
Creator: Jay Longino
Director Dave Meyers
Premieres Friday, Sept. 25 (Netflix)