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Review: With 'The Shop,' LeBron James brings frank talk of race, politics and fame to HBO

Review: With 'The Shop,' LeBron James brings frank talk of race, politics and fame to HBO
NBA star LeBron James, center, hosts HBO's "The Shop," with guests including Odell Beckham Jr., from left, Maverick Carter and Michael Bennett. (John Johnson / HBO)

LeBron James has conquered professional basketball, opened his own school, become an outspoken voice in American politics and race relations, and was arguably the best part of “Trainwreck.”

A few months before he makes his official debut as a Los Angeles Laker, the basketball superstar has added another item to his resume, making his debut as a talk show host, of sorts, in HBO’s “The Shop.” In the half-hour series that premiered Tuesday, James chats with celebrity guests about sports, yes, but also politics, race relations, parenthood, the pressure of success and even Broadway musicals.

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HBO already tried the sports-adjacent-talk-show-on-a-school-night thing with “Any Given Wednesday,” Bill Simmons’ short-lived talker in 2016. While that show stuck to a more traditional talk show format, complete with an ersatz living room, “The Shop” is taped in actual barbershops around the country. (The premiere was filmed last month at West Hollywood’s Barber Surgeons Guild.)

Though the effort to capture the vibrance and tell-it-like-it-is spirit of the African American barbershop met with slightly mixed results in the first episode, “The Shop” is more than worth a return visit.

The series is, if nothing else, an impressive feat of booking. In the debut episode, James is joined by his childhood friend, business partner and unofficial sidekick Maverick Carter, and a roster that included rappers Snoop Dogg and Vince Staples, comedian Jerrod Carmichael, Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

There is an emphasis on professional athletes, but the inside baseball — make that basketball — talk is relatively limited, offering plenty for those who don’t follow the NBA. The guest list also includes faces that might not typically show up in a barbershop, like former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks.

Cameras positioned in seemingly every corner of the shop capture the participants as they get their hair trimmed, swill brandy and lounge in leather armchairs. Stylish black-and-white photographs of guests arriving at the shop serve as act breaks and enhance the show’s documentary feel. But the choppy editing sometimes removes context from the conversation, offering little sense of how one subject flows to the next.

The series is at its best when the discussion gets irreverent and candid, as when Carmichael slays the sacred cow that is “Hamilton,” describing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical as “the best community center performance I’ve ever seen.”

“It was terrible,” he says, dismissing its white fans with an expletive.

Fellow comic Stewart amiably plays the role of self-deprecating outsider, cracking jokes about “Fiddler on the Roof” and gently steering the conversation with questions about James’ experience as a highly successful black man in a country still riven by race.

“The Shop” is ultimately James’ show, and it offers fans an up-close and personal look at the star, whose previous forays into television include the Starz comedy “Survivor’s Remorse” and the NBC game show, “The Wall,” both of which he executive produced.

He opens up about the scrutiny that comes with being “King James” and recounts his experiences attending a predominantly white Catholic high school (where he recalls learning what a pantry was for the first time). James also explains his decision to become more vocal about matters of race following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

“When I decided I was going to start speaking up and not giving a … about the backlash or if it affects me, my whole mind-set was ‘It's not about me’," said James, adding he was influenced by thoughts of his own sons. "My popularity went down. But at the end of the day, my truth to so many different kids and so many different people was broader than me personally."

James says that an incident last year, in which the gate to his Los Angeles home was vandalized with the N-word, served as a reminder that “no matter how big you become in America, you’re still African American.”

The role of the professional athlete at a moment of intense political division is also a subject of lively discussion throughout the half-hour. The flamboyant Beckham says he’s often made to feel like a “zoo animal” and a “show monkey.”

While Green bristles at the idea of being an advocate, Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Bennett, who accused police officers of using excessive force against him during an encounter last year in Las Vegas, believes in speaking up. “When I was growing up, I was looking for Michael Jordan to say something. He never did. Now kids can look up and be like, ‘What LeBron said.’”

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‘The Shop’

Where: HBO

When: Next rebroadcast 5 p.m. Thursday, new episodes periodically throughout the year.

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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