By any measure, swimmer Ryan Lochte has led an extraordinarily charmed life. He was born into the kind of body and background that allowed him to turn an innate athleticism into 12 Olympic medals (in the history of the Games, only his former teammate, Michael Phelps, has won more medals). Blessed with traditional good looks and a highly marketable goofball persona (and forever immortalized for both by playing himself as a “sex idiot” on 30 Rock), Lochte made millions in sponsorship deals while enjoying the perks of reality TV fame. By all accounts, the 35-year-old now enjoys suburban domesticity with his model wife, Kayla, and their two young children.
So of course Lochte wants more: more medals, more money, more of the spotlight. It’s hard to begrudge his desires — few among us, I think, would be content to fade away gracefully from cultural relevance. Any scorn for In Deep With Ryan Lochte — Peacock’s 69-minute documentary portrait about the swimmer’s long-shot efforts to qualify for the 2020 Olympics (oof) — then should be directed toward NBC for putting out such a shallow and self-pitying vanity project.
In Deep begins with the “international incident” that cost Lochte millions of dollars and got him called “the worst person in the world.” Do you remember it? It happened in the summer of 2016, when a lot of things you probably do recall took place: Donald Trump’s ceaselessly surreal presidential campaign, the Pulse shooting, the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police. In the world of sports and entertainment that season, Hamilton won 11 Tonys, singer Christina Grimmie was fatally shot by a fan, and gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas came home from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as America’s Sweethearts. Lochte was there, too, with silver hair and a groin injury that didn’t prevent him from helping his relay team win gold.
The Rio Olympics also hosted Lochte’s downfall, which was precipitated by his lying to Billy Bush on camera that, on an early August morning after a drunken night of celebratory partying, he and his teammates were pulled over by the police and robbed at gunpoint, with the cinematic detail that a firearm had been held against his head. In actuality, the Olympians had stopped at a gas station to relieve themselves and, finding the restroom locked, urinated outside and tore down a poster. They were briefly detained by two security guards for the poster, seemingly with a gun drawn on them at some point.
Lochte’s exaggerations of the violence of the night (which bolstered stereotypes that Brazilian officials had hoped to dispel with the Olympics) briefly made him a poster boy for entitlement and privilege and lost him his most prominent endorsement deals. It seems fair to say, though, that the incident has been largely forgotten by those outside the Lochte family. Which makes the big question about In Deep not whether the over-the-hill athlete can score one last victory in … whenever the Tokyo Olympics will be, but, after #MeToo and the current racial reckoning, how forgiving we are toward famous (white) men who have been given the kinds of opportunities few people are ever afforded and extravagantly squandered them.
In Deep posits an apologetic Lochte, unconvincingly, as an underdog still worth rooting for. His second-banana status to Phelps — the Channing Tatum to Phelps’ Christian Bale — is supposed to endear him to us, as is the fact that, with the swimmer now firmly in his mid-30s, his odds at another Olympic run are close to zero. (Phelps, also 35, has retired from Olympic competition.) Patton Oswalt narrates the documentary with such cornpone earnestness that I spent the first half-hour waiting for the comedian to start making fun of his own delivery. Unfortunately, Oswalt is a professional through and through.
It doesn’t help that Lochte is as inarticulate and unreflective as you remember him. You can probably guess the “revelations” parceled out by the documentary: that he “bust [his] ass” to be the second best in the world, that he thought he’d have more money by now, that the 25-year-old version of himself wouldn’t believe what a settled-down, normal-ish father his 35-year-old self has become. You and pretty much every other halfway-responsible guy in his 30s, my dude.
There are many different ways In Deep could’ve lived up to its title — by exploring, perhaps, how Olympians transition to civilian life, or how Lochte occupied a certain kind of fleeting fame at a certain moment in time. Given how often he posts about his extremely photogenic family on social media, the doc also could’ve been about the second and third lives of pro athletes whose best days are behind them. All of those are hinted at here, but In Deep is most interested in restoring Lochte to a state of Wheaties wholesomeness, which he and NBC might view as more conventionally appealing, but which misses out on the intriguing messiness that gave the bro-tastic swimmer his unique celebrity cachet.
But the true meaninglessness of In Deep stems from the fact that, whenever the Tokyo Olympics take place (if they happen at all), it’s most likely that the swimmer’s comeback will end as soon as it begins. At least the documentary gets one thing right: Time was always against Ryan Lochte.
Premieres Wednesday, Jul. 15 on Peacock