Abbi Jacobson’s take on wartime women’s baseball teams isn’t quite pitching a no-hitter, but its character work and comedy are quite strong.
Amazon’s new A League of Their Own series, based on the popular 1992 film of the same name, arrives at a time when many of us are starting to feel serious reboot fatigue. Luckily, the eight-episode version of League starts on the right foot with a clever choice. Instead of directly transposing the story from movie to series, co-creators Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and Will Graham (Mozart in the Jungle) decided to create new characters instead.
The bones of the original League remain in the basic gist of the story. The year is 1943, and women from all different backgrounds try out to play baseball while their menfolk are away fighting World War II. The women bond as a team and prove themselves.
Much like the Friday Night Lights television show before it, Amazon’s A League of Their Own weaves together an array of subplots across its sprawling ensemble cast, loosely connected by a sports team. This ensemble is led by Jacobson as Carson Shaw, a small town Idaho girl whose soldier husband is overseas, and Chanté Adams (A Journal for Jordan) as Maxine “Max” Chapman, an aspiring pitcher from Rockford, Illinois— home of the “original Peaches,” the team around which the story revolves.
Jacobson’s flat acting can leave something to be desired, despite her excellent chemistry with her co-star, D’Arcy Carden (The Good Place), but Adams is exceptionally charismatic and lovable as Max. Bitingly clever, warm, and easy to root for, Adams’ performance makes Max one of the best things about this new League. Hopefully, Adams will have many more heroine roles in her career.
Wisely, the series’ writers give Max a variety of delightful friends and family members to play off as well. Much attention is paid to the vibrant African American community of Rockford, where Max’s mother Toni (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) rules over the proceedings from her thriving salon. Max and comic-loving best friend Clance, played by the magnetic Gbemisola Ikumelo, are this series’ answer to the sisters played by Geena Davis and Lori Petty in the film, and they rise to the challenge with aplomb, switching effortlessly between comedic and dramatic moments. Clance’s ongoing feud with some very young neighborhood children is one of the best running gags League offers.
Clance and her adorably nerdy husband Guy (Aaron Jennings, Grand Crew) also share some of the series’ most touching exchanges when African American men begin getting drafted into the army and Guy is among them. “I’m afraid of losing my glasses,” he admits. It’s gratifying to see the show take so much time developing a community of Black characters instead of leaving Max to shoulder the narrative weight of being the only Black woman directly involved in the plot.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about this series is its exploration of gender presentation and LGBT life in the 1940s. All the players are required to dress hyper-femininely even when playing their incredibly physical sport, and this version of the story digs down into how that might affect their psyches. Several of the Peaches turn out to be queer, regardless of whether they present extremely femininely like Carden’s Greta Gill, or in a more androgynous style like Jo de Luca (Melanie Field, doing a joyous Rosie O’Donnell tribute.) Lesbian and bisexual characters have friendships with each other that don’t turn romantic or sexual, and the show allows them to hurt each other and be imperfect people. Greta, in particular, is an interesting character to watch, as she carefully teaches another queer woman how to conceal her sexuality with coy play-acting.
Since the basic framework of the film has been stretched out over eight episodes, each about fifty minutes long, the pace of the show can feel draggy at times, depending on which subplots capture one’s attention and which don’t. The best reason to watch is simply to hang out with an ensemble of hilarious female characters.
Further stand-outs include comedian Kate Berlant as hypochondriac Shirley Cohen, who frets that while the other women have husbands to return to, she only has “a chair…a gorgeous chair,” and Priscilla Delgado as Esti González, a Cuban girl deemed “too mysterious” looking by the middle-aged white woman who trains the players on etiquette. Roberta Colindrez also brings wonderful heart to the series as put-upon pitcher Lupe García.
The interplay between the female characters, in particular, is nuanced, and the relationships feel lived in.
Other cast members include legendary character actress Dale Dickey as the women’s acerbic chaperone, and beloved Parks and Recreation actor Nick Offerman in the sort-of Tom Hanks role. Offerman plays the girls’ coach as a more gruff, fatherly figure than Hanks did (though perhaps that makes sense since Hanks’ character was originally supposed to be Geena Davis’ love interest) and it really works.
The interplay between the female characters, in particular, is nuanced, and the relationships feel lived in. No two friendships—or dalliances— between team members are the same.
The show is shot realistically, without much fuss, except for a few entertaining stylized promotional videos, newsreels, and dreams. A few more of those sequences would have been welcome since scenes could feel a little visually uninteresting at times. It’s not as if the series is devoted to realism. All the dialogue is written in a lightly anachronistic, modern style. Thankfully it’s not gratingly discordant like some recent projects I could mention (cough, Netflix’s Persuasion) but there are a few moments when it noticeably rings false. As enjoyable as this modern, queer update of A League of Their Own is, it’s hard to imagine women in the 1940s casually mentioning concepts like “victim blaming” in everyday situations. Jacobson’s character Carson, in particular, seems to fall back on some very 2020s turns of phrase in a way that makes one wonder if improv was allowed on set.
There isn’t an awful lot of actual baseball throughout the runtime of the series, but that’s more or less par for the course with shows about sports. What is shown looks dynamic and is shot in such a way that someone who knows nothing about the game (like this reviewer) can understand it, which is what truly matters.
All in all, Amazon’s A League of Their Own may not reinvent the wheel, but it provides a comforting group of friends to hang out with, even if serious topics are sometimes touched on. It’s hard not to wish that Jacobson, who shines as a series creator and writer, had let someone else take on the role of protagonist Carson Shaw. Happily, she’s buoyed by the charming cast around her, and at least a handful of strong jokes each episode.
Fans of the original movie may end up with divided opinions on the series, but it’s difficult not to get a little surge of nostalgia when the women take the field in the iconic Rockford Peaches uniforms. Entertainment trends may cycle more quickly now, but watching a group of quirky women stick together and kick ass will never go out of style.
A League of Their Own is now streaming on Amazon Prime.