"A League of Their Own" Full Season Review

In watching the teaser for "A League of Their Own," it's clear Amazon had no idea how to promote this series other than to show off the glitzy production values and lean hard on a potential audience's fond memories for the original film. Series creators Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham have stressed over and over since the show's announcement that the 1992 film unsurprisingly skirted past some of the historically papered-over aspects of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, including racial prejudice against some of the best female ballplayers in history and the unspoken scope of suppressed lesbianism among the league's ranks. In 2022, I think it's a really smart approach to tell those stories instead of trying to recapture the dynamics of the film. I also think it's a few too many ideas frantically crammed into a project that doesn't have as good a grasp on its concept as it should, at least for the first half of its short season. It's a winner, but it has a lot of development ahead if it wants to be a Hall-of-Famer.

In a perfect world, this show would be garnering the type of online fervor that "Our Flag Means Death" enjoyed some months back when it premiered on HBO Max. The shows share similar enough DNA, interrogating a specific moment in history through a comically modern lens and the almost gag-like edict that every character is gay until proven straight, an intentional flip on how things usually work on television shows. Sadly, this series will be overlooked by those Stede/Ed stans because of the constraints of its setting; "OFMD" can embrace the gay buccaneer lifestyle with a little more absurd enthusiasm than this show can embrace the A.A.G.P.B.L., which still is seen--thanks in large part to the film--as a hallowed and noble moment in America's favorite past-time. But the ladies' baseball romp does score points where David Jenkins' and Taika Waititi's sweet pirate misadventure doesn't: there's far more space and gravity given to queer stories and the diverse landscape of experiences within that setting. Every character's approach to their sexuality and its place (or lack of one) in their community is a different and fully realized story, even if the audience is expected to read most of them in small exchanges or subtext. 

"A League of Their Own" follows its source material in being a comedy, at heart, but in keeping with both the change in medium to television and the thirty years' difference in comedic sensibility, its far less broad and quotable, trading out-and-out punchlines for focus on character and chemistry. Jacobson brings along her winning combination of awkward energy and genuinely sweet sentiment that made her first show "Broad City" such a smash for Comedy Central, and it's a good fit. She plays lead character Carson Shaw, a meek housewife from Idaho who starts the series as the character most cemented in 1943 realism until being surrounded by her larger-than-life teammates. It's a painfully slow burn to watch Carson develop as a character and as a leader of the Rockford Peaches, but it does feel very well-earned by the end and Jacobson is giving a wonderfully messy performance as a woman who is just finally discovering who she is and where her power resides.

It helps that D'Arcy Carden is present to make sweet and intoxicating chemistry with Jacobson as Greta Gill. Carden is magnetic not just in her appropriately classic pin-up beauty, but in her commitment to her character's whirlwind call-and-response to Jacobson's perpetual hesitant sighs. Of course it makes her the bright, shining star of the show whenever she's present--much like "The Good Place," this show's earliest triumphs are to weaponize how steeped in His Gal Friday archetype Carden's comedic timing is--but it also develops into a narrative obstacle for the first half of the series. Greta's wide-eyed "fuck it, let's do it" wildcard attitude can only be disarming perhaps the first dozen times it is deployed, and after that we really need to know more about her and why she uses this energy as a defense mechanism. That comes...eventually, and Carden gets to show off how wonderful a dramatic performance, both action and reaction, she is capable of. But, yet again, a viewer must patiently wade through three or four hours to get to it.

Chanté Adams does everything she possibly can as Maxine Chapman, the show's equal lead protagonist to Carson. Refused a tryout on the spot because of her race, Max instead spends the series chafing against the constantly moved goalposts that prevent her from shining on the pitcher's mound despite possessing massive talent and even more formidable persistence. Max is at her best when trading quips with her best friend and bottomless well of support Clance, a character absolutely crushed by Gbemisola Ikumelo despite edging into "funny friend" cliché territory. Adams injects a lot of humor, vulnerability, and warm humanity into Max, who takes more than half the series to develop past "I wanna play baseball" and gain some internalized motivations once confronted by the questions of her sexual identity and her community's expectations of her. 

Starting to detect a pattern here? Yeah, the main shortcoming with the show is that it gets off to a very slow start, one that hopes to take its time and build up the characters and relationships, and flounders at times in that regard because there's just too much ground to cover and not enough time. Honestly, "A League of Their Own" would have been a far stronger series if it were to focus solely on Carson and the Rockford Peaches or on just Maxine, Clance, and the black community of Rockford whose stories went completely untold in the original film. There is enough material for two separate shows here, and each has its own deep bench of actors who absolutely succeed despite their limited screen time. While the Peaches plot deploys Kate Berlant, Molly Ephraim, Roberta Colindrez, Kelly McCormack, and the great Dale Dickey as invaluably memorable personalities to prop up the relatable humor, Max's journey leans heavily on Ikumelo as well as Alex Désert and Saidah Arrika Ekulona as her parents, and Lea Robinson as her uncle Bert to add a lot of emotional gravitas.

On a technical level, the series hits almost everything out of the park. Costumes and sets are gorgeous and painstaking reproductions of the era and the league itself, but shot with an eye for luxurious color to stand apart from the film's more sepia-intoned palette. This is in lockstep with the dialogue, which has an amusingly modern twinge of slang and cadence (someone asks if something is "a thing," there are plenty of assurances that "I've got this," and so forth), and with several notably anachronistic needle-drops like Heart's "Barracuda" during a montage of fantastic plays on the field. It really helps to signal an audience that this version of "League" is less concerned with historical trappings as it is with the intangible vibes of mating a 2022 queer romantic comedy to a poetically appropriate backdrop.

But for all such cheeky similarities to "Our Flag Means Death" in terms of texture and theme, the show could really use the HBO Max series' brevity and snappiness. Sixty-minute episodes are perfectly normal for glitzy, prestige television, if not entirely restrained in the shadow of ridiculous feature-film runtimes for "Game of Thrones" and "Stranger Things." And I fully understand that the creators of "A League of Their Own" are hedging against the show not getting a second season and cramming as much story as possible into their allotted 8-episode run. I just pine for a breezier 30-45 minutes each, as many of the episodes hit their peak energy midway through and drag to the finish line. I have no idea if this mistake in pacing was mandated by Amazon's purse strings or if it was the preference of the creators, but surely it wouldn't take much elbow grease to restructure from 8 to 10 or even 12 episodes. Indeed, the finale episode itself got me good with Carson's grand locker room speech to her team--a device that I shouldn't ever fall for again, after a lifetime of sentimental sports dramas, but this one was absolutely rousing--and then I realize that they are about to take the field for practice the day before the big game, and we have a full act of the episode left on deck. The final innings feel more obligatory and lifeless as a consequence, even though it is all saved by a jaw-dropping reference to modern sports that is near and dear to my heart. 

By absolutely no means is "A League of Their Own" pitching a perfect game in this first season, but the fundamentals are spot on and there's something to be said about its spirit. It's a wildly ambitious take on the story, in complete contrast to previous attempts to merely ape the movie with a soundstage and a three-camera setup. What sets it apart hopefully will be what keeps it alive for years to come, as its quite endearing and well-crafted even if the pace is an undeniable issue. Kind of like baseball.

Season Rating: B-

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