The League was never going to be an MVP-type TV show. Even though it scored the occasional celebrity cameo and a few members of its cast have since gone on to grab acclaim and bigger paychecks elsewhere, it always felt like a bench player. The kind of sturdy, hard-working athlete that bounces from one organization to another (in this case, from FX to FXX), gets along great with teammates, and occasionally scores some highlight reel-worthy moments and decent numbers while never breaking any records.
“I don’t really pay attention to the ratings,” says series co-creator Jackie Marcus Schaffer. “We never have. We probably should but we just don’t. We’re just grateful anyone’s watching the show. I know the ratings are okay if somebody walks up to me and I’m wearing a hat or a backpack with The League on it and they say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen your show!’ and I’m, like, ‘Aw, somebody has heard of this show! That’s amazing!’”
Even the best athletes have to hang it up some time. So it is that The League is set to wrap up its seventh and final season this week. And true to the spirit of the show and its place in the bloated TV landscape of 2015, it’s walking away quietly but with head held high, sticking to the show’s ample strengths: the crackerjack trash talk between the six frenemies who share a fantasy football league, injections of crazy energy from ringers like Jason Mantzoukas and Leslie Bibb, and plenty of untoward activity that would land any normal person in the pokey.
What you’re likely not going to see is a flurry of thinkpieces and gushing essays looking to place The League in the pantheon of cultural greats or copping to its enduring legacy. That’s a little too high-minded for an often low brow show. The true testament to what this series has wrought for a generation of NFL fans and comedy enthusiasts will be the little things: the catch phrases and stray bits of dialogue that have crept into message board and bar chatter, and in the names of fantasy football teams that are direct references to the show. In the top 100 this year: “Vinegar Strokes,” “Password Is Taco,” and “Chalupa Batman.”
“We don’t get a lot of press, but mostly the fans stayed with it because it was funny,” says Jeff Schaffer, Jackie’s husband and the other mind behind The League. “In the end, the fact that at almost every NCAA basketball and football game, there’s a Mr. McGibblets there. Or people talking about frittatas or Eskimo brothers or how every time someone sees a Jetta, they wonder if there’s a hot girl in it. It’s gratifying to know that other people thought they were funny enough to tell their friends. And that’s how the show survived.”
That’s a modest assessment of The League’s staying power, and only partially true. The show came along in the midst of a boom in the world of fantasy sports, a market that is raking in billions of dollars each year. (Not for nothing is the fact that this show’s final season was quietly sponsored by a certain daily fantasy league.) Being tangentially affiliated with one of the most popular professional sports leagues in the U.S. certainly didn’t hurt, nor did the occasional cameo by star players like Jay Cutler, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
Even more important to the show’s longevity was the rapport of the six actors that have remained front and center since the first episode aired back in 2009. That’s one of those x-factors that is almost impossible to predict, no matter how many chemistry tests and auditions you put your players through. That goes double for a show that relies almost entirely on the cast’s improvisational skills.
The League probably had more to prove on this front than most shows. The half-dozen leads were a pretty ragtag bunch: a couple of UCB vets (Nick Kroll and Paul Scheer), two folks best known for their work in mumblecore movies (married couple Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton), a stand-up comic on the rise (Steve Rannazzisi), and a musical comedian from Canada known best for his viral videos (Jon LaJoie). Not even a bank of supercomputers tasked with putting together the cast of a TV show might never have landed on this assortment. Random as it was, everyone involved willingly gushes about how the six leads hit their groove from the jump.
“I think the problem with improvising in TV or film is everyone is trying to make themselves look good and they forget that the biggest tenet of improv is to make everyone else look good,” says Scheer, who played The League’s beloved douchey punching bag, Andre. “I don’t know how it was or how it came together, but with this group, everyone was always looking out for each other. We’re always trying to set each other up, and make the scene, and not ourselves, look better.”
That generosity only helped to elevate the show as a whole. Even with one of its cast members (Duplass) landing parts in Oscar-winning movies like Zero Dark Thirty, there was never a star that rose above the rest of the gang. It was pure ensemble comedy to the end, and it was written and acted with that same spirit in mind. Each character saw his/her share of ups and downs but they always all end up in the same place: usually sitting on a couch watching a game together or huddled around a bar table giving each other shit.
If that camaraderie on screen seemed to deepen, it was only a reflection of what was happening behind the scenes. True, Duplass and Aselton were married, and Kroll and Scheer were already buddies, but working in close proximity for long periods of time (the first season’s six episodes were filmed in just over two weeks, and they kept that kind of fast-paced production schedule throughout) only drew the six leads closer together and made filming the show’s last installment a bittersweet affair.
“I felt like the whole week leading up to the last day, it just kept sinking in,” remembers Rannazzisi. “A lot of the locations we were shooting at, like my house on the show and the bar…it felt weird. It felt good, like we were going out the way we wanted to.”
“Everyone was together,” says Jeff Schaffer of the show’s last shooting day. “We wanted to make sure that the last scene was with the whole group. And the amazing thing is that up until the last second, we were still making the show the way we started it, which was, like, trying to beat that joke, pitching on this. The last shot we were still doing that. That’s the way the cast is and that’s the way we are.”
While the show won’t go out on top of the ratings, everyone involved is walking away with their pride intact, their profile raised and zero regrets. Sure, it may not have made as much of a dent in the cultural world as the other unscripted TV show that Jeff Schaffer worked on (Curb Your Enthusiasm), but it put up good numbers and left it all out on the proverbial field. And thanks to the wonder of streaming services, it is ripe for rediscovery and, hopefully, reappraisal for years to come.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now.
The League’s series finale airs on FXX on Wednesday 12/9/2015 at 10PM ET/PT.