Netflix has quietly been carving out a space for adult-driven animation with critical darlings like “Bojack Horseman,” “F for Family,” and “Big Mouth” leading the way by making year-end lists and even landing Emmy nominations. It makes sense that this section of the streaming service would eventually get to something like “Hoops,” a depressing new comedy about a foul-mouthed high school basketball coach who hates everything about his life, but especially despises the collection of unathletic losers he’s been asked to turn into a winning team. While some animation uses the form to expand the visual boundaries of the story that unfolds in ways that budgets for normal television would never realistically allow, “Hoops” is really just a traditional pay cable sitcom in animated form, although it would probably feel even more aggressively misanthropic to watch if it featured actual teenagers, as hard as that may be to believe.
Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”) voices Ben Hopkins, a character who feels like someone that Danny McBride workshopped in an animation class in high school, or at least turned down at some point in the production of this series. Much like the McBride characters from shows like “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” the latter being a program “Hoops” feels like it’s directly emulating at times, Hopkins never met a problem that couldn’t be solved through any means necessary. For example, the third episode features the new star player potentially failing an ethics class that would mean his expulsion from the team, so Hopkins pushes as many ethical boundaries as possible to make sure that doesn’t happen, including something called “Operation Beat It,” named after Michael Jackson (you can see where that joke is landing already). Everything that Ben Hopkins does he does with non-stop, aggro strings of profanity that would even make Kenny Powers tell him to take a Xanax.
Hopkins has more problems in his life than the fact that the kids on his team can’t hit a free throw. His father Barry (Rob Riggle) is famous locally for the successful steakhouse that he owns, and his popularity drives his failure of a son crazy. Ben’s ex-wife Shannon (Natasha Leggero) is sleeping with Ben’s friend and coaching assistant Ron (Ron Funches), which leads to an amazing number of jokes about how Ben feels about his buddy sleeping with his wife. Pushed by the principal (Cleo King) to finally succeed, Hopkins has a glimmer of hope when he learns that a massive kid named Matty (A.D. Miles) has joined the team. If all the other kids are horrible and the coach is too distracted by his misanthropy to teach them anything, can they win a game or two just because of Matty’s height? This is the incredibly thin skeleton of a narrative on which the writers hang stories about Ben either making mistakes or cleaning them up for others.
The main difference between McBride’s take on alpha male idiocy and this one is that the writers of “Hoops,” including creator Ben Hoffman, simply don’t understand what a character like this needs to work. First and foremost, the “adult” humor needs to feel like more than superficial button-pushing. It may sound clichéd, but it takes intelligent writing to craft dumb characters that strike more than one note. Ben Hopkins is a black hole of profanity and inanity because the writers can’t think of anything for him to do beyond the superficial, and Johnson doesn’t help the situation by deciding that 90% of his lines should be literally screamed into the microphone. Hopkins crosses over from entertainingly abrasive to the kind of guy that anyone would kick out of a building before the end of the first episode. He’s an incredibly difficult character to spend time with for ten episodes.
The lack of a likable or interesting lead may be the biggest flaw of “Hoops,” but it’s far from the only problem. From top to bottom, the writing here is sophomoric. And that’s being polite. The writing team’s idea of a joke here is that Hopkins goes to a restaurant that’s modeled off Hooters that’s called…wait for it…Cooters. The scene ends with a hygiene joke. It’s only one of many alleged jokes that hit the floor like a thud, but perhaps the most startling thing is how often “Hoops” chooses to repeat some of their worst bits. The idea that Hopkins is unexpectedly in love with the Jodie Foster movie “Little Man Tate” produces a chuckle in the first episode, but it’s a joke that returns all season long to the point that it goes well past humorous into desperate and annoying.
At its core, comedy is about character, timing, and wit. These are the fundamentals that a show like “Hoops” needs to succeed on a very basic level. When a program like “Bojack Horseman” digs deeper than that foundation into issues related to depression or “Big Mouth” transcends its raunchy exterior to say something true about adolescence then they become something even more impressive. To say that “Hoops” is unconcerned about anything beyond the dirty jokes and strings of profanity would be an understatement because it can’t even nail those basics. A show about a foul-mouthed basketball coach who is willing to hire a hooker for a student and frame an Ethics teacher as a pedophile better have the simple elements of comedy down to justify spending time in its hideous world. If it’s not funny, which is “Hoops” is not, and it doesn’t look good, which “Hoops” does not, then there’s absolutely no point.
“Hoops” is animated because no network would greenlight a show about an asshole like Ben Hopkins if it were live-action. That may be just barely enough for the most loyal Jake Johnson fans. Everyone else should find another game, cartoon, or literally anything else to watch. [D]
“Hoops” arrives on Netflix on August 21.