Part of TV’s seemingly endless series of reboots adapts familiar traits of yesteryear, but with more thoughtful or thorough approaches to race or gender, or both. The 1960s are different when “The Wonder Years” centers on a black family. There’s more to gossip about on “Gossip Girl” without the rigid do-si-do of a gender binary.
Likewise, a new take on “A League of Their Own” swings into ideas about queer identity and spaces, about race, and about Blackness in particular. But it can’t get its bat around fast enough to connect.
Available now on Amazon, this “League” has the same setting as Penny Marshall’s near-perfect 1992 film: It’s 1943, and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League makes its debut as World War II progresses and the labor pool of Major League Baseball continues to shrink.
The show splits its time between the budding Rockford Peaches and Max (Chanté Adams), an ambitious pitcher who has been banned from the competition for being black. Both halves of the story weave through strange spaces and different character awakenings, but only with a well-intentioned mildness that feels like an introduction rather than a real story.
Just like in the film, which focuses on Dottie by Geena Davis, these Peaches find their anchor in a catcher: Carson Shaw, played by Abbi Jacobson, who made the series together with Will Graham. We have been led to believe that she is an excellent player, although we see so little meaningful action on the pitch that it hardly matters. The real story of Carson is the budding romance between her and her chic teammate, Greta (D’Arcy Carden, who outshines almost everyone else).
Indeed, most of the Peaches we spend time with are queer, sneaking off to clandestine nightclubs, following strict rules to hide their sexuality from the violence of society, and eager to resist the competition-enforced version of femininity. Max also tries to find her place among her gay and transgender parents, and she and Carson develop a transient but honest friendship.
Most sports stories deal with how individuals learn to perform as a team, but this version of “League” takes an intriguingly different path by exploring how a team’s safety net enables individuals’ growth. Carson encourages both her teammate Lupe (Roberta Colindrez) and Max to pitch as themselves, rather than throwing whatever the coach wants or mimicking the delivery of famous throwers of the era.
But this idea of sport as expression is not explored much further. Instead, baseball is lumped together with grocery shopping and comic book fandom on the show’s list of potential but unspecific arenas for self-actualization. If the creators see baseball as uniquely romantic or different from other sports or demanding activities in its psychological or team ethos, it’s not clear on screen.
“They can’t tell us if this is real or not,” Greta Carson told a heart-to-heart locker room after finding out that the league probably won’t survive and that Peaches’ coach (Nick Offerman, short) thinks that it’s a joke. This idea comes up repeatedly in “League”, that the participants decide what is important, that we create our reality by agreeing.
It’s a nice idea to stick with, but one that the show can’t quite embody. It doesn’t transcend its artifice, and nothing feels true enough to matter — not fake, just superficial.
Period dramas aren’t required to authentically recreate their eras, and “League” seems fortunate enough to have its dialogue and sensibilities much more 2020s than 1940s, perhaps reflecting how out of sync the characters are ahead of their time. But this also means that the show’s attempts to tell more truthful, richer stories about the kinds of women usually left out of the film — and many other films and series — often sound false and come across as shocking anachronisms, such as the use of of mumble humor and ‘epic’.
Over eight-hour episodes, “League” has its bright spots – a sprinkling of lively moments, tender and exciting flirtations. What is missing are big emotions, jazzy razzle-dazzle and real tension or catharsis or drive. The actual baseball game is vague and mostly in editing, and the usually obvious rhythm and built-in bets of a sports season are not there.
The result is a show that feels less like a lived-in story than a reverent “A League of Their Own” themed party.