When Brad Pitt, as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in the 2011 modern classic “Moneyball,” rhetorically asked, “How can you not be romantic about baseball,” he wasn’t talking about the inevitability of love and sports colliding. “Bull Durham” this was not. (Or “For Love of the Game” or even “The Upside of Anger,” or any other Kevin Costner movie about a baseball player and his off-field love affairs.) What Billy was referring to (via Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s script) was the sentimental wish-fulfillment America’s pasttime so often and so easily lends itself to realizing. He may as well have asked, “How can you not dream?” For even when those dreams are dashed, as Billy’s were time and time again, the sport known for guaranteeing three tries per at-bat is thus the one most encouraging of idealism, of myth-making, of hope.
Prime Video’s series, “A League of Their Own,” despite being inspired by Penny Marshall’s iconic 1992 film of the same name, may share more in common with Billy’s encouraging life lesson than any prior sports story. Co-created by Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson (who also stars), the hourlong drama is still set in the 1940s and follows a team of women who compete in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Their shared passion for the sport brings them together just as inter-personal conflicts and societal restrictions threaten to push them apart, but it’s the game that steers each player, each relationship, back on course.
Setting aside the few casually incorporated nods to Marshall’s (outstanding) movie (“There’s no crying in baseball” is said, Rosie O’Donnell does guest star), audiences should adjust their expectations to an entirely new cast, narrative, and focus. “A League of Their Own,” the series, is not an extension or remake of what’s come before, but a gutsy reimagining of what that title can mean for a broader number of women. Growing pains and superfluous comparisons can make for a rough, even agitating, initial experience, as early episodes struggle to balance multiple storylines, introduce characters, and immerse viewers in a new world that looks so close to the one they already know and love. But thanks to a sterling ensemble (cast by Felicia Fasano) and absolute dedication to its open-minded approach (a credit to the co-creators), the eight-episode first season slowly comes together around a heart that was always in the right place.
Running through the dirt, though not yet the base paths, is Carson Shaw (Jacobson), a housewife living in Lake Valley Idaho who’s dead-set on boarding a train that’s already left the station. Her hustle pays off, forsaking pleasantries with a pair of neighbors wondering where she’s headed, and though she’s hesitant to share such travel details with her friends, she quickly informs a stranger: After de-training in Chicago, she’ll try out for the first professional baseball league to include women. Carson’s a catcher and a darn good one, standing out from the hundreds of other hopefuls tossing balls and swinging bats at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Among the obvious stars (and eventual members of the Rockford Peaches) are Jess McCready (Kelly McCormack), a no-nonsense ballplayer who expects the best from her teammates; Maybelle Fox (Molly Ephraim), a burst of sunshine who’s always got a story to tell; Shirley Cohen (Kate Berlant), a shy, spiritual athlete more likely to credit any success to the team’s good energies than her own skill; Lupe García (Roberta Colindrez), an ace pitcher with a dry sense of humor — and a stubborn streak — to match; Jo Deluca (Melanie Field), a cocky slugger whose quick, mighty arms become a good luck charm for the Rockford Peaches.
Carson meets Jo fresh off the train, but it’s Jo’s best friend Greta (D’Arcy Carden) who steals all her attention. On the diamond, Greta’s a five-tool athlete, hitting for average and power while fielding as well as she steals and throws. Off the field, she’s a star of different sorts — an ebullient figure who everyone can rally around, but Carson is especially drawn to (for reasons made clear by the end of the pilot).
Greta represents both the most thrilling and frustrating aspects of Prime Video’s new “League.” Carden’s performance is as assuredly magnetic as needed to earn her character’s permeating appeal, and the series gives the “Good Place” Emmy nominee the fresh challenge — and ample screen-time — her success demands. But the scripts let her down. Greta remains a mystery for far too long; her motivation is murky and dimensions limited. The same can be said for a handful of supporting characters, but it’s more acceptable in such an expansive cast for growth to take time; Greta is magnified without being developed.
Abbi Jacobson and Chante Adams in “A League of Their Own”
Courtesy of Prime Video
Then there are the somewhat unavoidable associations. With her ball skills, beauty, and esteemed stature, Greta is reminiscent of Geena Davis’ “Dottie” from the original film. But she’s not playing Dottie, or even a version of Dottie, and starting with that comparison doesn’t do anyone any favors. More noticeable (and distracting) is Nick Offerman’s manager, Casey “Dove” Porter, who — like Tom Hanks’ coach before him — is a former professional athlete whose lasting fame is meant to draw fans to the new league. Dove isn’t a grumpy drunk; he’s not slovenly or even brash. He seems like a class act, which helps indicate to audiences he won’t follow the same trajectory as his film parallel. But what eventually transpires with Dove makes you wonder why he’s anything like the iconic Jimmy Dugan; like the series and the movie, these two characters are better off not being compared, and the superficial nature of Dove’s limited arc is another vexing choice from a structural standpoint.
Yet one of the most awkward early configurations also proves the most rewarding. Introduced separate from Carson — and carrying her own story, isolated from the Rockford Peaches — is Max (Chanté Adams), a fire-tossing pitcher from Rockford who ventures all the way to Wrigley for a try-out, only to be promptly kicked out before even throwing a pitch. Max is Black, and that’s all that matters to the corporate suits running the league. (Kevin Dunn makes a far-too-brief appearance as the owner, Morris Bakers.) So, resilient as ever, she tries to join a local business’ league… but that’s a no-go because she’s a woman.
With nowhere to turn, Max concocts plan after plan, bargain after bargain, to try to find her own team. Her best friend, Clance Morgan (Gbemisola Ikumelo), offers a supportive ear and encouraging word at every turn, making up for a mother (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) who just wants Max to keep working at her hair salon and get married already. But Max isn’t interested in marriage. She’s not interested in men, for one, but she’s not sure what she wants from life other than to play baseball. The latter half of Season 1 tackles her wanting the one thing she seemingly can’t have with nuance, twists, and absorbing fervor, but for those first four hours, Max is shouldered with too much responsibility. The series’ A-story has Carson — and all of her complicated personal issues, from leaving her husband’s home to realizing her own multifaceted sexuality — plus the team’s drama, the league’s drama, and a full ensemble to find time for. The B-story (which is really more of a second A-story) is just Max, and warranted or not, it often feels like we’re just waiting for Jacobson and Graham to hurry up and find a way for Max to join the Peaches.
Switching between the two, even in hourlong episodes, creates pacing issues where things like the team’s inaugural baseball game gets surprisingly short shrift. The glowing production design (led by Victoria Paul) is a sight to behold, but it clashes with less convincing choices (like CGI baseballs zipping around the field and hammy staging where actors are awkwardly crammed into frame).
Abbi Jacobson and D’Arcy Carden in “A League of Their Own”
Nicola Goode / Prime Video
If this sounds like piling on, I apologize. Given the talent involved and the pedigree of its predecessor, “A League of Their Own” is burdened by outsized expectations, and that can magnify every bump in the road. But most of its first season problems are common issues for freshman TV shows, and the Prime Video original smooths out with each passing episode. The team builds its own identity. The games get a stronger focus. Many characters come into their own — Roberta Colindrez, a star who’s been doomed to excellent but underseen dramas like “I Love Dick,” “The Deuce,” and “Vida” this far, is in firm command of her steadily evolving pitcher.
Best of all, the inclusivity driving “A League of Their Own” is ultimately felt, not just appreciated, by its audience. Hollywood is all-too-often happy to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion in casts and creations while really wanting more of the same. “A League of Their Own” not only takes a massive swing by uncoupling from the movie’s familiar beats, but Jacobson and Graham understand why their story deserves to be tied to this particular piece of I.P. Even in 2022, when football dominates American TV ratings and “Ted Lasso’s” fútbol expands across the world’s stage, baseball is a fitting parallel. The sport is tied to its founding country in every way imaginable, emblematic of the U.S. of A. in terms of our history with racism and sexism, as well as repeated attempts to overcome such institutionalized plights. It’s a reminder of how much, and how little, has changed. When executed properly, there’s nothing like it, but even the unpredictable can carry incredible power.
In that way, baseball serves as a unifying force. Carson and Max repeatedly respond to old, white so-and-so’s who belittle their talent by simply playing great baseball. Their game speaks on their behalf (not that they’re afraid to speak their minds), and the game is undeniable. Their resiliency creates hope where there was none, and that creates a drama, a drive, that’s specific to this open-ended story about women following their hearts. In spite of every obstacle, they persist. So must we all.
How can you not be romantic about baseball? Well, why would you try?
“A League of Their Own” premieres all eight episodes Friday, August 12 on Prime Video.
Source: Read Full Article