Beyond the sphere of wokeness and Internet mobs, a fear exists: The freedom to push boundaries — inherently required in comedy — is in danger of extinction. There survives a thirst for overtly provocative humor outside the domain of criticism, a thirst the animated series Hoops hopes to quench.
Releasing off-color country-infused comedy albums under his alter-ego, Wheeler Walker Jr, Hoops creator Ben Hoffman has ruled the politically incorrect for years. Apart from his incendiary records, Hoffman’s The Ben Show, which aired on Comedy Central for one season, might be inferred as the showrunner’s primary inspiration for this new series. Executive produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, through ten half-hour episodes, Hoops similarly shoots for laughs with loud, trashy humor.
Based in Kentucky, Coach Ben Hopkins (Jake Johnson) helms the Lenwood High School Colts: a basketball team so terrible, if they lose by forty it’s a win. Ben throws chairs and referees routinely eject him from games for his colorful language. Along with Hoffman’s uncensored football coach sketch from The Ben Show, Bobby Knight likely serves as the closest inspiration for the character.
Ben’s life hangs in tatters: His estranged wife Shannon (Natasha Leggero) — an equestrian — is dating his Black assistant coach and “best friend” Ron (Ron Funches). Ben lives in the spare room of his best friend’s place; and withers under the shadow of his retired-ABA, steakhouse-owning father Barry (Rob Riggle). With a character like Ben exhibiting such a depth of misery, Hoops should be a sure-fire winner. Instead, the animated series lacks anything resembling a memorable punchline.
Each episode follows Ben finding an edge to win. In the premiere — in a scene ripped from Hoosiers — to save his job, Ben tries to recruit the lone seven-foot kid in town Matty (A. D. Miles), a tragically lonely teen dressed in a black overcoat. He does so by promising the high schooler penetration with a sex worker in return for playing time. In the episode “Ethics,” Ben pressures Matty’s ethics teacher to pass him so he’ll be eligible to play. For “Matty Gets a Girlfriend,” fearing Matty’s new relationship will adversely affect his playing, Ben plots to end the couple’s burgeoning love. The respective arcs are thin and infrequently funny, with one exception being “The F***ing Sponsor.” There, Ben’s dad bets against his son’s team. Expecting the team to lose, he becomes a sponsor and promises free steaks if the team wins a game. The story allows for Ben to connect with his young players — in a hilarious and affecting way — over the shared hate for their fathers. The conclusion gives Ben and his dad a brief chance at poignancy.
Netflix’s Hoops: Season 1
Unfortunately, Hoffman rarely offers much emotion beyond anger. Even the most invective-laden animated shows gave their characters moments for reflection. Peter Griffin might be a selfish oaf, but his family often breaks through his juvenile blabberings for heartfelt scenes. No matter how callous, South Park typically ends on an endearing — if sharply ironic — message. The list continues through The Simpsons, Rick and Morty, Ren & Stimpy, and countless others.
But Hoops never approaches the same depth. For instance, the relationship between Ben and his estranged wife Shannon operates on a single plane: Ben’s selfishness. He tries to win her back in every episode, but often bungles his opportunities. In episode 2, in an attempt to woo her back and make his dad jealous, he crashes her equestrian party. He further turns off Shannon when he undermines his best friend Ron or disregards her boundaries. The character needn’t require a life-changing event to experience a moment of pathos — the aforementioned shows all demonstrate sincere, profound moments on occasion, but the characters remain their same flawed selves. A series can’t survive under a slew of slander; even animated shows require some emotional realness beyond the artifice.
Worse yet, Hoops lacks resonant supporting characters. For instance, the school’s principal Opa (Cleo King) fits into the stereotypical sitcom role of sassy Black woman. Often fighting with Ben over budgetary issues, she sometimes sings about her sexual urges in graphic detail… and that’s the extent of the character. Ben’s father wishes his son weren’t his. Ron floats around Ben’s tantrums with zen calmness, and might be the series’ best personality, if he were more Ned Flanders and less clueless. None of the kids on the ragtag basketball team, save for Matty, are narratively impactful. They’re more a revolving carousel of punching bags for low-hanging fatphobic, homophobic, and antisemitic jokes, which often lack inventiveness. Hoops too often confuses the shocking with the ingenious.
Moreover, the recurring bits aren’t memorable either. Ben routinely references Little Man Tate, the Jodie Foster-directed family drama, but the novelty of him referring to a little-seen movie wears thin once you realize it’s a little-seen movie. Self-loathing, Ben quips about his penis size; his lack of physical acumen for basketball; and his propensity for losing – he’s at least an equal opportunist. But the punchlines lack contemporaneousness. Much like the Little Man Tate bit, Hoops builds jests around Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Lisa Nowak, Joey Greco, and Guy Fieri. And that’s just in the second episode. Ultimately, Hoops is a series that feels more at home in 2007 than in 2020.