Television

Show Everything, Reveal Nothing

HBO’s Being Serena is an all-access pass to the tennis star’s life that provides no access to her heart or brain.

Serena Williams swings a tennis racket.
A scene from Being Serena.
HBO

Being Serena, HBO’s new five-part docuseries about tennis star Serena Williams, begins with a humblebrag. “I didn’t even want to win,” the four-time Olympic gold medalist says, recounting her performance in the 2017 Australian Open in the days after she found out she was pregnant. Williams’ then-fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, hypothesizes that she won every set she played in the tournament because she wanted to get off the court as quickly as she could.

That Williams could nab her 23rd Grand Slam title while not overexerting her eight-weeks-pregnant body is one more bit of evidence to support the already overdetermined theory that she is the world’s greatest living athlete. Her name inspires resigned defeat in her opponents and hero-worship in her fans. The challenge of Being Serena, which focuses on the celebrity’s life at home, is how to reconcile Williams’ superhuman image with the exceedingly human trials of birth, physical trauma, and parenthood.

Those who are hungry for a glimpse into Williams’ life will find much to relish in the series, the first episode of which premieres on Wednesday. She was a documentarian’s dream subject, allowing cameras to follow her to the hospital on her due date, into the operating room during her unplanned Cesarean section, into the car on her ride home from the hospital with daughter Olympia, and to a wedding-dress fitting six weeks after giving birth. While there are a couple of moments that could feature on a very literal episode of Cribs—Olympia’s wardrobe is fit for one of her mother’s runway shows—the cameras focus most intently on the couple’s conscious displays of humility: Ohanian struggling to conceptualize a swaddle, Williams singing Olympia to sleep with an imperfect rendition of a Moana song. Williams and her producers do their best to color her journey to motherhood in relatable, down-to-earth tones. Some parts of pregnancy, including anxieties about caring for a wholly dependent being, apply across lines of class and fame. Some, like retaining a French-speaking doula or throwing medicine balls at a wall just a couple of weeks before the baby’s due, do not.

But for all the access we’re afforded to Williams’ private moments, Being Serena is severely, surprisingly lacking in humanity. Much of the disconnect comes from Williams’ stilted narration—“The doctor said it was time for the baby to come, so I guess it was time,” she says over footage of her trip to the hospital—which recalls the platitudinal jabber of an on-court, prematch interview. The observations don’t get any rawer or more profound when the series depicts the literal life-and-death moments she endured. Williams’ C-section left her with severe blood clots, a terrifying ordeal that’s accompanied by narration that would fit best in a commercial for Gatorade or Nike, two of a few brands that enjoy product placement in the series. “Fear has always been valuable in my life,” she says. “Without fear, without doubt, without discomfort in what we’re doing, what is there for any of us to overcome?” Later, she adds, “Tennis? I don’t think it ever felt so far away.”

This guarded version of Williams, dispenser of prepackaged bromides, dovetails with the series’ dreamy, slow-motion close-ups of the star staring into middle distance, tenderly touching her baby’s hands, and striding onto tennis courts. It’s profoundly strange, however, to watch almost-too-intimate video footage of a woman who we never truly get to know. A camera (held by Ohanian, it seems) sits just inches from Williams’ face during her entire C-section; when Olympia emerges, Williams and HBO viewers both see her for the first time, dotted with blood, just a few seconds out of her mother’s body. At 8 months old, Olympia has already had her first moments in the world sold for money and goodwill.

The series succeeds as a bland PR venue for Olympia’s parents, who come off as loving partners and parents. With a more ambitious vision, it might have been a vehicle for political inquiry, too. Earlier this year, Williams wrote in CNN about the pulmonary embolism she suffered after giving birth. She contrasted her harrowing but survivable experience—shepherded by the best, most attentive medical team money could buy—with those of other black women in the U.S., who are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes, a discrepancy that persists across class lines and education levels. Her piece of commentary was an admirable model for how celebrities can use their fame and influence to bring attention to critical, underdiscussed crises.

Being Serena makes no such connection to the world outside the Williams-Ohanian home. (HBO only made episodes 1 and 2 available to critics in advance, but it seems unlikely the show will raise the issue in future episodes, since Williams has already moved past her pregnancy and birth experience.) Even a brief mention, a chance to hear Williams grapple with a shameful truth about the country she has captivated with her talent and drive, would have been hugely powerful and emotionally resonant. But that, it seems, is more of herself than Williams was willing to give. After watching two episodes of Being Serena, I have a very good sense of what’s going on with Williams’ body. I would’ve loved to have a peek inside her head.