'Being Serena': TV Review

Serves up Serena attitude with limited faults.
5/2/2018

Tennis GOAT Serena Williams gets a five-episode, HBO-produced commercial for Serena Williams, which Serena Williams probably deserves.

By the numbers, Serena Williams has dominated her sport to a degree rarely, if ever, seen before in athletic history. The GOAT of women's tennis has essentially grown up in the public eye, and she has also been a well-compensated advertising pitchwoman.

You still might feel as if Williams' image has been largely crafted by forces outside of her control, which may mean "the media" or "public perception run amok," a crafting that has been a product of her own desire for privacy.

By that standard, Serena Williams is undoubtedly deserving of an extended, self-generated commercial for Serena Williams, which basically arrives on Wednesday in the form of HBO's Being Serena. The most remarkable thing about the five-part Being Serena is that Williams isn't credited as director or executive producer. Make no mistake, though. Nothing onscreen in Being Serena, produced by HBO Sports and IMG Original Content, is anything other than what Williams wants the world seeing about her.

The two episodes sent to critics begin with the 2017 Australian Open, an event preceded by Williams and then-husband-to-be (now husband) Alexis Ohanian learning they're expecting their first child. That tournament ended with Williams celebrating her 23rd grand slam solo title, surely one of the most remarkable feats imaginable, though sister Venus, who lost to Serena in the Aussie final snarks, "I like to think that it was unfair, because it was two against one and I want a rematch."

Being Serena progresses through Williams' pregnancy, delivery and the early stages of her tennis comeback, a work-in-progress that is expected to continue at the end of this month at the French Open.

The Serena Williams that Serena Williams wants to present in Being Serena is dogged, determined and almost pathologically unable to avoid comparing every life event to tennis. She's also insecure in the sense that she wants to be as good at motherhood as she is at tennis, but she isn't sure if she's ready for the new challenge. The first episode of the series is titled "Fear," after all, the second "Strength."

Although every exhibited beat of fear is followed by a reminder that nobody perseveres like Williams, Being Serena has at least been given what appears to be pretty full access. The birth of Williams' daughter, via C-section, is done on-camera with only a hospital sheet or robe for modesty. It's harrowing and emotional, as are Williams' medical complications from the birth. We're there for all of that, as well as her first tennis practice post-birth, in which she looks slow and ungainly by her own standards and yet capable of beating every Being Serena viewer 6-0 6-0, such is the series' mixture of fully exposed and exposed-but-on-brand. Knowing the results of Williams' first two tournament appearances of 2018, I can pretty safely predict how those will be featured here. 

Her relationship with Ohanian, whose status as extraordinarily wealthy co-founder of Reddit is delivered with the same off-hand casualness as an ordinary person might give to going to see a new Marvel movie, is treated as sweetly competitive as well. An early scene finds the couple decorating their future daughter's bedroom and trying to find the perfect place for that 2017 Australian Open trophy of which Williams casually and accurately taunts her beau, "You'll never have one." Ohanian is very present, very supportive and otherwise sweetly nondescript, the least remarkable union of remarkable people one could have.

I'm not even sure that there's a credited director on these first two episodes, illustrating what a corporate package Being Serena is — a contrast might be made with Peter Berg's spectacular HBO Sports documentary series On Freddie Roach — yet it's still a handsome, well-considered vanity production. Cinematographer Peter Franchella captures both Williams' pregnant belly and her opulent Florida home with equal admiration. There's a nice weaving of the highly stylized present-day footage — she is often captured in a halo of saturated light like an angel in a classical painting — with familiar home-movie footage of Venus and Serena's far rougher Compton, California, upbringing.

The message that's conveyed in both access and interpretation here is that no matter what Serena Williams is going through, she came up from worse, and no matter the adversity she's facing, she's got the will to conquer it. I don't know how much I learned about Williams from Being Serena other than the way she wants herself presented, which I guess is Serena Williams the way I've never seen her before.

Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)