Hoops should be a slam dunk. Out August 21, the new series takes one of the things Netflix does best (adult animation) and combines it with a hugely popular white male comedian (Jake Johnson) plus a diverse cast of up-and-coming comic talent. Mix all those ingredients together and you should have yet another success on par with Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, or Netflix's latest hit cartoon, The Midnight Gospel. But for reasons I still don't totally understand, Hoops is a total airball.
🏀 Warning: Extremely light spoilers for Hoops follow, but really, it's not that kind of show. 🏀
Maybe it's the plot? Unlike those other Netflix cartoons, which use the medium of animation to tell far-out stories about space travel, hormone monsters, and animal movie stars, Hoops takes a more grounded approach. It tells the story of Ben Hopkins (Johnson), an inept high school basketball coach in smalltown America with pro-sport ambitions but neither the skills nor the temperament to succeed.
The story is rounded out by a crew of awkward teens who make up his underdog team, his ex-wife Shannon (Natasha Leggero) and his assistant coach Ron (Ron Funches), who's currently dating Ben's wife. They're still technically married, but Ben refuses to sign the divorce papers.
In this story of unhappy educators and angsty teenagers, there's not much room for the fantastical. Aside from the occasional musical number (which are all passable but mostly forgettable), Hoops is more King of the Hill than The Simpsons — but without the patience to develop its characters and let them linger in silence. Hoops wants to be a story about the perils of 21st century Middle America, but it's too busy telling dick jokes to say anything significant.
Ben's attempts to be a good basketball coach aren't particularly interesting, either, mostly because he's a one-dimensional character who's only good at getting angry and ruining everything he touches. Ben's troubled relationship with Shannon is perhaps the most riveting thing about Hoops, but by the end of Season 1, that story seems to be a dead-end as well.
Maybe it's the comedy? Hoops is a comedy, and there's no denying the talent of its cast (from Johnson and Funches to the mostly unknown Cleo King, who shines as a morally dubious principal). But considering that jokes are really all it has going for it, a disappointing number of them actually land. Johnson has a few great moments that mostly happen when he breaks character and veers into standup comedy. (One monologue about how his prostitute friend needs to rethink her pricing scheme is particularly funny but feels like a detour from the plot.)
Ron Funches (one of the funniest people in Hollywood today) is bizarrely played as a straight man to balance out Johnson. The equally talented Leggero doesn't get many chances to draw laughs, either, while Cleo King is a standout talent as Johnson's unprofessional boss. Meanwhile, the kids often serve as a reliable B-plot while getting into various shenanigans, but it's hard to find their pubescent humor funny in a world where Big Mouth already exists.
Or maybe it's Jake Johnson? Look, I'm a huge J.J. fan. I still rewatch New Girl, and whenever he shows up for a movie cameo, my eyes light up. (He's the best part of Get Him to the Greek). But the problem here is that Johnson isn't sure whether he should be playing Ben or just playing himself — or the version of himself that fans know from New Girl.
If Hoops was a bizarre New Girl spinoff where an animated version of Nick Miller moved to Middle America and coached a basketball team, it might actually work. If Hoops presented a totally original character who didn't remind me of Nick Miller, it might also work. Instead, Hoops is stuck somewhere in the middle, making Johnson's performance — and the entire show — painfully uneven. (It's occurring to me now that if you've never seen New Girl, you might enjoy Hoops a whole lot more. So if that's true, please let me know.)
I want Jake Johnson (and everyone else involved in Hoops) to have a great career. And I highly suspect that will still happen. But I seriously doubt that this is going to be the show to do it.
Hoops wants to be the next member in Netflix's all-star lineup of mature animated series, but it seems doomed to forever remain little more than a benchwarmer.
Hoops begins streaming on Netflix on August 21.