State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
As a columnist, it’s often more fun to write about something when it is so blatantly terrible. Especially when it brushes up against the gambling world, I find it cathartic and satisfying to get haughty about the inaccuracies and obvious lack of basic research. Every time I slap my head in disgust or mutter “They’d never say that” or ask “When did they move the Stratosphere next to the Bellagio?” I’m also thinking, “Column gold!”
The new Max sitcom “Bookie” seemed sure to offer plenty of this kind of fodder. It’s created by basically the worst name in TV, Chuck Lorre of odious “Two and a Half Men” and desperately unlikeable “Kominsky Method” fame. According to its logline, it’s about “a veteran bookie must fight to survive the legalization of sports gambling, increasingly unstable clients, and fast-paced life in Los Angeles.”
The thing is, this show isn’t great and it isn’t funny. But it’s also not ostentatiously stupid or brimming with obvious misunderstandings about sports, sports betting or gambling.
Indeed, Lorre created a dreck so bearable yet mediocre that it denies me the simplest joy implicit in the promise of bad television.
It’s not even bad enough to hate-watch.
A bookie you can sympathize with
Most critics came to that conclusion from the one episode, the pilot, that Max made available to critics before its premiere on Nov. 30. Brian Tallerico’s take at RogerEbert.com was typical:
“So why did the company only send one episode for review? Based on the inferior quality of this one, my guess is that they didn’t want us to suffer more this holiday season.”
In that episode, it is established that Sebastian Maniscalco’s character, Danny, is the titular bookie and Omar J. Dorsey’s Ray is his muscle. You wonder pretty quickly how they even stay in business given that they don’t seem to like squeezing bettors for what’s due or use any sort of violence.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bookie on TV or in a movie that the audience is supposed to sympathize with. This show, then, has cornered the market on the bookie-with-a-heart-of-gold slant. Everyone seems to expect them to beat them up, and they keep telling people it’s not like that anymore.
Watching bookies break skulls and fingers was never fun, but watching them wander around Los Angeles with such impotence is actually boring.
I waited to see four episodes, or half of the first season, before I decided to commit to an opinion. Either the thing would pleasantly surprise me or affirm my prejudice against Lorre and Hollywood’s inability to make comedy out of gambling.
It did neither, which I suppose is a skill all its own.
A laundry list of ethnic and racial stereotypes
The other problem here is that the things that are objectionable are not mere annoyances — like the idea that Jeanne Smart would have a private blackjack dealer at home — but actually, seriously objectionable.
In the first episode, Danny goes to collect from a maître d’ named Stewie. But Stewie is now dressing as a woman — “living my truth” — and this is supposed to be a gag. It’s unclear if the writers want us to take her transition seriously or view it as a ploy to hide, but the camera lingers on the masculine hands in a way that made me wonder what year it is.
In the third episode, the duo visit a customer whom they find sitting on the ledge of an apartment building. He’s suicidal over his debts — and that’s supposed to be amusing. Danny and Ray manage to talk him off the ledge with surprising ease, but then the dude jumps anyway when they leave and are waiting for their ride outside.
Never does the show offer any information on how to get help for mental health, suicide, or problem gambling, which I thought was standard practice these days. Instead, Ray’s character is calling in new, ridiculous bets to Danny while his wife is kicking him out and his house is for sale “by owner.”
Finally, the characters are just a laundry list of ethnic and racial stereotypes. Ray is a Black man and former NFL player with at least three baby mamas and a sassy old granny. Jorge Garcia, aka Hurley from “Lost,” becomes their bookie partner on soccer because, as a Hispanic, he’s the only one who knows anything about the world’s most popular sport. And so on.
Maybe there’s a reason to keep watching
I might keep watching mainly because I’m fascinated about how the show bills itself as a comedy about an old-school bookie surviving legalization — in a state, California, where there won’t be legal sports betting for many years.
Through the first four episodes, they talk about that prospect but it’s not really central to the story the way the logline would have us believe. Danny’s bookmaking operation appears to have an app or website of some sort, too, which is confusing because why would anyone use it when they could just do the same thing on offshore online books?
But, really, the show isn’t good or bad enough to make me care.