'Hoops': TV Review

Heavy on coarseness, light on heart.
8/21/2020

With Phil Lord and Christopher Miller among its executive producers, Netflix's new adult animated comedy offers an obscenity-filled look at a rag-tag high school basketball team.

Ron Funches, the formerly husky and now svelte stand-up favorite beloved for his combination of absurdist timing and soothing, sing-song cadences, is long past due to be recognized as one of TV's stealthiest MVPs — especially for his work in the animated space. Funches' astonishingly upbeat King Shark is a consistent scene-stealer in DC Universe's terrific Harley Quinn and all he has to do is pop up in something like Central Park to guarantee mirth.

Funches is, again, an absolute gem in Netflix's new animated comedy Hoops, playing a big-hearted assistant basketball coach dating his best friend's soon-to-be ex-wife. But, like so many Funches projects, Hoops suffers from not putting its best asset front and center — well, that and struggling to find heart in a story filled with generally awful, foul-mouthed cartoon people.

Created by Ben Hoffman and featuring Phil Lord and Christopher Miller among its executive producers, Hoops is actually the story of Ben Hopkins (Jake Johnson), who coaches a dismal high-school basketball team in Kentucky. Ben lives in the shadow of his father Barry (Rob Riggle), a former NBA player and current steakhouse owner, and works with his aforementioned best friend (Funches' Ron), who is dating his aforementioned ex-wife (Natasha Leggero' Shannon). It's all Ben can do to keep his team of somewhat likable misfits together and convince principal Opal (Cleo King) to let him keep his job at all, but he's already dreaming of coaching in the NBA and sees socially awkward seven-footer Matty (A.D. Miles) as his meal-ticket, if he can just convince Matty to play. Like Apple TV+'s Ted Lasso, Hoops is bathed in the characters and tropes of the underdog sports genre, with Bad News Bears as the most obvious inspiration.

The secret to Netflix's strong run of adult-oriented animated shows has been finding the right grown-up hook beyond the inevitable swearing. So for BoJack Horseman it was "swearing + existential angst." For Big Mouth it was "swearing + astonishing empathy." For Tuca & Bertie it was "swearing + empathy + joy + female empowerment = swift cancelation." Hoops has the closest tonal resemblance to Netflix's F Is for Family, where the swearing is supported by family-driven heart.

Especially in its first few episodes, Hoops coasts on coarseness, not just in the swearing but in its relentless mockery of Ben's team (the characters might as well be named Fat Kid, Gay Kid, Black Kid and Redneck Kid). There's very little plot to speak of and very little room to build affection for any characters other than Ron, though there's a certain genius in how Johnson, also an executive producer here, delivers Ben's sputtering, rarely contained rage. It's just hard when that's a character's only trait; over the course of half of the 10-episode season, it becomes monotonous.

The second half of the Hoops run slowly starts digging deeper into all of the characters, animated in amusingly bow-legged, high-crotched, scar-eyebrowed fashion by Bento Box. The eighth episode, probably the only one I'd deem consistently funny, offers flashback backstories for several major characters and the injection of motivation and psychology is a big help. Ben is an unrelenting toxic dump of insecurity and anger, and I'd posit that giving actual insight into how he got to be that way is something that might have more wisely been done earlier. Shannon is generally a non-character before that episode — again, not ideal. And Ron and Opal's backstory details are just hilarious, and I'm not sure anything else in the entire show is hilarious.

Guest voices with ties to the production team are also a boon, including Johnson's New Girl colleagues Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone, plus Lord & Miller veteran Will Forte, whose cameo as a frog-licking guru is another highlight.

It sounds puritanical to lament how much of the show relies exclusively on punchlines tied to obscenities, the main character's resistance to political correctness or heavily played double entendres relating to balls (or single entendres about Ben's tiny penis). And maybe all that is intended to make viewers appreciate the other moves the series occasionally showcases. Hoops has a solid, series-spanning grasp on call-backs, like a bit tied to Little Man Tate that made me chuckle each time. Given Hoffman's profane musical alter ego Wheeler Walker Jr., it isn't surprising that the series' frequent songs, written with Scott Hoffman, are quite good.

By the tenth episode there's enough going right here to make one hopeful for future seasons, but it still feels like a disappointment given the pedigree. At the very least, Hoops passes the time until somebody just gives Ron Funches a show of his own.

Voices: Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Natasha Leggero, Ron Funches, Cleo King, A.D. Miles

Creator: Ben Hoffman

Premieres Friday, August 21 on Netflix.