The new CNBC reality series Back in the Game has a few moments that are so delicious I wanted to lick my fingers after watching them: Ryan Lochte looking at a presentation that has clear data illustrating that no one likes him. Ryan Lochte making a phone call to apologize to a colleague for lying about what happened in Rio at the Olympics. Ryan Lochte’s wife insisting that he can’t drive a Mazda because that’d be bad for his image, and maybe because she likes convertibles.
The non-Ryan Lochte episodes also have their moments, as Alex Rodriguez tries to help celebrities who’ve fallen off their pedestals, financially and otherwise. Yet Back in the Game (CNBC, Wednesdays at 9) struggles to prove why it is necessary, kind of like Ryan Lochte.
Back in the Game comes from Amber Mazzola’s Machete Productions, which also produces The Profit, and it has a similar vibe and quality. CNBC has tried to duplicate Marcus Lemonis’s show before, but this thankfully isn’t a clone.
Alex Rodriguez begins the episodes explaining that he’s built in a company and invested in others. He also nods toward his troubles, like steroid use and his suspension from MLB. “I know exactly what it’s like to hit rock bottom,” he says. “I’ve learned how to overcome adversity.”
It’s a compelling argument for a show: someone using their life experience to help other people—in this case, celebrities who’ve fallen far from their pedestals, and in some cases are really struggling financially.
Whatever Alex Rodriguez has learned, though, isn’t always present on Back in the Game. Instead, he’s more like an accountability partner who shows up to ask questions and nudge the celebrity forward, possibly toward a more financially lucrative future but in reality some kind of project that the celebrities aren’t always totally in to, perhaps because they see it as a reality show scene and not something of true value.
Sometimes, Rodriguez is a mere producer stand-in to set up a scene, and he’s not even present (“today, I’m sending…”), but other times he’s right there, delivering electric shocks to the remoras who’ve attached themselves to celebrities and give bad, self-serving advice.
That’s when the show jolts to life. In next week’s episode, you’ll see his dead-eyed stare toward former Charles in Charge and Baywatch star Nicole Eggert’s manager, David Weintraub, who you may remember from A&E’s Sons of Hollywood or from his producer credits on a bunch of celebrity reality shows.
Rodriguez calls Weintraub out for his expensive watch and cars after he demands 50 percent of a joint venture with Nicole, and also for his demeaning attitude, because Weintraub insists his client brings very little to a proposed joint venture and he’s the one with the connections. (Earlier, the show gleefully shits on Weintraub by leaving in an extended scene of his preening, including asking Nicole to photograph him so he’ll know what he looks like, during which he glances at the camera but still acts if filming has not yet begun.)
Rodriguez is also there to point out what a bad idea it would be for Ryan Lochte to get yet another expensive car, and to tell Evander Holyfield’s team no about a proposed deal they’ve negotiated a terrible deal, because it’s such a high risk.
Yet Rodriguez can also be dismissive and miss the real story, like telling Nicole Eggert, “you arguably were the most attractive woman in the world” moments before she talks about being troubled by the way she was objectified and “pigeonholed” into a career she was uncomfortable with.
And the advice can also sound thin: Someone from Alex’s team tells American Idol season one co-host Brian Dunkleman that he can be “monetizing” social media, and describes it in a way that makes it sound like social media is an ATM with cash that’ll fly out if he were to just record a video. (It’s not.)
Rodriguez also sometimes misses opportunities to notice or discuss bigger, more structural economic problems that affect everyone, even downtrodden celebrities, and instead falls back on tired tropes.
For example, Dunkleman points out he wants to transition to a new career in real estate, but that’s a challenge because the exam involves both time and money that he doesn’t have, and Alex frames that as a lack of willpower, not a genuine roadblock.
While he is good in interviews and significantly better when he’s just in conversation with the episodes’ subjects, Rodriguez does awkwardly stumble through the scripted parts, like his voice-over narration.
If you only saw the Evander Holyfield episode, you might give it another shot: The episodes improve, with the Brian Dunkleman episode taking off thanks to Dunkleman ability to articulate what he’s been through, and joke about himself and his situation.
But I still struggle to see what, exactly, Alex Rodriguez is doing and why, or what, exactly, the point is.
On The Profit, Marcus Lemonis is invested—and we’re invested in watching—because he’s literally bought in: He’s making a TV show and contributing his own money to a business that he’s trying to improve.
Alex Rodriguez is making a TV show, and both he and the show struggle to make him into more than that. He’s a host who shows up to film some scenes, and sometimes he shows what feels like genuine concern and compassion, but he doesn’t seem as fully devoted as Marcus.
The show invites a direct comparison between the two by having Marcus Lemonis show up on the first episode—and not just because they’re CNBC stars.
It turns out that Marcus and Alex went to high school together, where they were friends, and how exactly this hasn’t been the subject of a feature-length documentary, I don’t know. (Wikipedia says this was Christopher Columbus High School in Miami-Dade County, and Alex transferred after his first year, while Marcus graduated from there in 1991.)
There’s a suggestion in the Nicole Eggert episode that Rodriguez might be giving some money to help her open a food truck business, but it’s not clear if that’s the show’s money or his money, and why he’d offer her money but not the other celebrities. Dunkleman proposes a joint venture and while the price is absurd, Rodriguez’s response is more like: I am not here to do business with you, don’t be ridiculous.
But when Alex Rodriguez is there for them, saying no to bad proposals or calling out condescending attitudes of managers toward their clients, it’s great fun to watch him play.