There’s a long history in film and television of pairing washed up adults with impressionable kids. We all know movies or storylines like The Bad News Bears, Uncle Buck or School of Rock. They harness shock value out of raunchy language and mischievous plot lines, but by the end, there’s often a wholesome connection and much-needed character development for both parties. But it can be difficult to succeed in this format without verging on the overly crude and stereotypical. We’ve come to expect that the adult is going to come out the other end still fairly flawed—and possibly inept—but perhaps more complicated or misunderstood than we initially thought, and the children emerge with more life experience and a bit more confidence in themselves. It’s a formula that can work in theory, but requires somewhat endearing characters and humor with both purpose and taste.
Hoops, the new Netflix series starring Jake Johnson (New Girl) as the outrageously immature basketball coach of Lenwood High School, has neither of these things. The first scene of Episode 1 ensures that we’re acclimated to Johnson’s character, Coach Ben Hopkins, very quickly. Hopkins is in his element: exploding into an expletive-filled tantrum at the referees and throwing chairs as his players try to hold him back. He insinuates that one referee has a hamster up his butt, and the other ref shoved it in there—a joke, which, to be clear, is exponentially funnier than how Johnson delivers it. Johnson’s choice of a slightly raspy, squeaky voice becomes exhausting in mere seconds, which wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem if 20 minutes of every 23-minute episode didn’t include him yell-talking—wouldn’t a man of the Coach’s age have a heart attack if he spent every breathing minute with veins bulging out of his forehead from animated rants? It doesn’t matter if Hopkins is on the court or off the court, he only has one mode, and it’s a rage-filled wise guy who sees nothing but a world full of people out to get him. It’s hard to imagine why the writers of this show thought, “You know what people need? A white, middle-aged, sex-obsessed loser whining for an entire series, with the most insufferable voice possible and nothing remotely fascinating or redeeming about him.”
In the pilot’s locker room scene, Hopkins insists that he loves basketball. Sure, he may be wildly inappropriate and unprofessional with his players and school staff members, horrible to women and even more vapid than your average sports bar meathead, but we’re supposed to believe that his heart is in the right place. After a routine ejection from the game, he tells his team, “My problem is I care too much,” but then spends the whole series manipulating, lying and meddling in people’s lives for his own gain—always making things more difficult for himself and others. It’s hard to root for someone who’s not only rude and stubborn, but also plays the victim when all he does is emotionally pillage his community Godzilla style.
One of Hopkins’ downfalls is his daddy issues, especially since his mother wasn’t in the picture. His father Barry Hopkins (Rob Riggle) is a former professional basketball player and owns a sporty steakhouse in town, and he’s made Ben feel like a huge disappointment since he was young. Then there’s Ben’s estranged wife, Shannon (Natasha Leggero), who hates his guts and makes fun of him constantly, the school principal Opal Lowry (Cleo King) who nags him to win (“You can’t be an asshole and a losing coach”) and his athletically-challenged players who make his dream of becoming a successful, rich basketball coach near impossible.
When Hopkins isn’t angrily and pathetically fumbling through insults at referees, he (or his drugged-up alter ego “Pill Ben”) is intervening in his players’ lives to try and keep their minds on basketball at all times. He attempts to convince a scrawny, seven-foot-tall outcast to join the team by buying him a blowjob (one of the show’s favorite words, which is equally as tiring as Hopkins’ constant shouting) from a prostitute. He engages in an elaborate scheme to make sure one of his players is academically eligible to play—at one point, breaking into an ethics teacher’s home and putting a dead horse in his bed (Hopkins originally planned to only leave the horse’s head, like the famous Godfather scene, but was unable to saw off the head—a rare comedic bit that actually lands).
The problem with this show is that it never answers the question, “Why should we care?” Hopkins is irredeemable as a person, and the rest of the characters aren’t fleshed out enough for viewers to become emotionally invested in them, so the only thing the show can really offer is comedy or escape. It’s just too bad that the over-the-top swearing (it must rival The Irishman) and lowest-common-denominator style of humor makes it almost skillfully unfunny. There’s a trite musical number with lyrics on screen when the players get drunk for the first time together. The writers also try to make a recurring in-joke out of the coach’s random obsession with Little Man Tate, but it bombs pretty significantly. Plus, there are the expected poor taste lines (like when Hopkins gets offended that no one wants to have sex with him in prison), and even unexpected lame quips about Taco Tuesday. In fact, the only funny character is a nutty elderly man named Willy Rothbart, who’s alive for approximately five minutes of the show. Rothbart thinks a fancy fur coat is his deceased wife, and then he dies at a wedding, which causes Coach Hopkins to launch his wheelchair out of disgust, landing Rothbart’s face into the cake.
It’s a one-dimensional series with hardly any subtext, and often lacks any sense. In the penultimate episode, Hopkins finally agrees to sign his divorce papers, and somehow this makes Shannon—who relentlessly and openly despises Hopkins for the entire season—want to have sex with him. It’s not only hard to believe, but it sends a harmful message that a terrible man who does a somewhat decent thing after a long period of refusal is able to easily right past wrongs and is entitled to a woman. The writers are acutely aware of just how few women will enjoy Hoops, as there’s another cheesy original song during this sexcapade with the lyric, “No, we don’t wanna show her nude / Want women to watch this / Not just dudes.” The light sexism is perhaps expected, but what’s strange is my strong suspicion that it’s not even funny enough for its key demographic: high school and college-aged men who go to Buffalo Wild Wings to argue about fantasy football and their favorite Pixar movies.
Just as Coach Hopkins goes on ridiculous tirades, struggling to find the words to describe how much something sucks, I find myself in a similar position. I mean, how bad does a show have to be that Guy Fieri making a brief appearance is actually a bright spot? Hoops has some of the most inconsequential episodes of television I’ve ever seen—a show with no reason to exist, that ends as uninspired as it begins and can’t even make the layup of an occasional goofy joke. The only thing the show really offers is a few reminders of just how unfair it is for high school sports coaches to place professional athlete-sized expectations on kids who are going through the most confusing period of their lives. But the show depicts these struggles in a particularly reductive, unrealistic way, effectively neutralizing its impact. At the end of Episode 5, Pill Ben mutters, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t learn a goddamn thing,” and though emotional enlightenment isn’t the aim of the show, I feel the exact same way. Maybe there’s a reason the emoji with a person discarding trash also resembles a basketball player.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno