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Back in July, the New Yorker published an article with a title that has since cemented itself in my mind: “Can Pickleball Save America?” What a headline. Can pickleball save America? These two things—pickleball, a tennis-like sport that’s skyrocketed in popularity over the past three years; and the downfall of American society, however you may interpret that—seem unconnected. But clobbered into one headline, the connection starts to make sense, if you stare at it long enough. OK, maybe pickleball can save America.
Now, a few months later, thanks to CBS’ uproarious new celebrity pickleball tournament, I can confidently say: Pickleball not only can save America, but it will save America. Yes, folks, you read it here first! No need to worry about the climate crisis, the impending doom of the 2024 election, or the ongoing Ticketmaster situation. Pickled has arrived to sweep you off to the courts and make you feel like you’re in 2011 all over again, mouth agape while watching Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior.
Maybe this is a stretch, the whole “saving America” shtick. Honestly, though, while once-splendiferous shows like The Great British Baking Show drain themselves of all whimsy, Pickled completely delights. Stephen Colbert hosts the celebrity pickleball tournament, with Best in Show legend John Michael Higgins assisting as a sideline reporter. Around a dozen celebs throw down during the 90-minute special, competing in a bracketed pickleball tournament for a statue of Stephen Colbert. Serious as those stakes sound, everything about Pickled is tongue-in-cheek. And, to make everything lighthearted, Pickled is actually a fundraiser for Comic Relief, a charity that aims to put an end to intergenerational poverty.
“But what is pickleball?” you ask. Where have you been? This little game is bigger than the World Cup! Okay, if you still don’t know: Basically, it’s tennis for people who can’t play tennis. (That would be me.) The rackets are small, the ball plastic, and the net isn’t as high as a normal tennis court’s set-up. You also play with a smile on your face. That’s not an actual rule, but as I watched Pickled, I realized that people are usually grinning while they play.
The rules of the game are laid out, with a few jokes scattered in the explanation, in the first few minutes of Pickled. Meanwhile, the celebs practice their serves on the courts. (“Now serving: Murray Bartlett,” announces Higgins at one point, echoing all of our thoughts as we tuned in weekly for new episodes of The White Lotus last summer.)
The stacked list of celebrities proves just how big a deal pickleball has become. Here’s just a taste of the roster: Alongside Bartlett, there’s Will Ferrell, Emma Watson, married couple Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael, Army of the Dead’s Tig Notaro, and New Girl’s Max Greenfield. Daniel Dae Kim and Luis Guzman play on a team together titled “Daniel Dae Luis.” It’s excellent. They should star in their own Phantom Thread together, with pickleball rackets instead of sewing machines.
The contestants really lay into their character work here, too—Ferrell serves up some goofy asshole goodness with his teammate Notaro, constantly panning her while she carries their team. Watson delightfully smashes every ball that heads her way as if she were still Meg from Little Women. After losing his first round, Bartlett gives a pleading speech to the Emmys, begging for a nomination in the Best Guest Actor on a Reality Series category. We’ll see to it that he gets another statue.
Watching Pickled feels like playing tennis on Wii Sports as a 12-year-old child—which is to say, it’s fresh, fun, and invigorating. In other middle school-level metaphorical terms, it’s also like reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time in eighth grade. It’s enlightening to see humor scrunched into every second, with so many opposing personalities battling for the limelight, and a grand mixing of every pocket of entertainment into one TV series. Pickled is the Olympics for folks who lost their minds over Wendy Williams on The Masked Singer.
The series’ conglomeration of familiar cultural treasures (Best in Show, The Colbert Show, and Wipeout, to name just a few more) makes for great family fodder during the holiday season. For example, the show plays into the contrived nature of sponsorships. We’ve seen this before in Wayne’s World; this time, though, I thought the brand was fake. In fact, it’s real: “OOFOS”-brand shoes are the sponsored item, which Colbert and Higgins mockingly remind us back and forth, naming every hut on this pickleball haven after OOFOS footwear. A sense of humor—the best form of marketing in 2022.
Better yet: Beloved pickle brand Claussen also sponsors the show, beating Vlasic to the punch. Though pickleball has nothing to do with real pickles—a controversy has arisen with the name, which either references the “pickle boat” (slowest) of crew races, or the creator’s dog, whose name was Pickles—Pickled leans into the oddity of the game’s nomenclature. A giant pickle hops around as the mascot of the show. Colbert announces that the mascot is actually depressed, getting over a break-up with his human wife, who left him for another pickled vegetable. A sad pickle as the face of this chipper pickleball tournament—how kooky.
So many tiny delights are packed into the Pickled jar, but by far the most endearing is the love for the game. The whacks of the paddle against the ball, the sweeping wind under a players arm as they smash it across the court, the epic highs of a perfect thwack, the brutal lows of punting a ball into the net—even though the show makes time for humor, it always makes more room for pickleball.
Make time for Pickled, and after, save around two hours to wait in line for a court at your local YMCA. It’ll be long; still, worth it. Both pickleball and Pickled are a delight, and, yes, will save this country.
Pickled is now streaming on Paramount+.