In the opening scenes of Prime Video’s series adaptation of A League of Their Own, we learn that Abbi Jacobson’s Carson Shaw can’t lay off the high ones.
But, unlike Lori Petty’s Kit Keller from the 1992 Penny Marshall film, Carson isn’t as much focused on hitting high fast balls at the moment as she is hopping a fence.
While Petty’s Kit and her sister Dottie (Geena Davis) were scouted, told they were good, and asked to go to tryouts for a women’s baseball league that was forming as World War II took American men overseas, Carson received no such invitation or positive feedback from any authoritative figure. And while Kit saw the tryouts as a golden ticket out of her mundane farmer’s-wife future, Carson is running away from the future she’s already (maybe reluctantly) secured: her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Charlie (Patrick J. Adams)—who is conveniently in combat right now—and her family who doesn’t understand her, plus the “excitement” of who will bring the pie to the next church choir practice.
The movie A League of Their Own is a perfect film about unspoken sibling rivalries, female empowerment, and the challenge of gender norms by showing that (white) women can love—and play—a sport dominated by men. The very good TV series A League of Their Own is a worthy sleight of hand that lures you in with the promise of nostalgia for its predecessor before going hard on the homophobia, racism, and sexism of the era that even a movie made just 30 years ago could barely acknowledge if it still wanted to attract a mainstream audience who wanted to see a swing-dancing Madonna and a peeing Tom Hanks. Even Rosie O’Donnell was still closeted when she appeared in that film, which came out four years before she’d be professing her love for Tom Cruise on her own daytime talk show. Her character, third base player Doris Murphy’s, looks and attitude are used as short-hand for a sarcastic tomboy.
This A League of Their Own (from Jacobson along with Will Graham) is scrappy, unpolished, and awkward at times. The skirted uniforms worn by this version of Rockford, Illinois’ Peaches aren’t as tailored as the ones the team wears in the movie. The makeup is rarely as perfectly applied. Even the coaching system is a play-it-by-ear situation: In place of Hanks’ charismatic drunk Jimmy Dugan, there’s Nick Offerman’s has-been Casey “Dove” Porter, who is still eating out on one great story from his career. However, Dove quickly disappears from the series’ plot line (making this the second summer series where Offerman appears just enough times to be recognized but not enough to require him to do much, if any, press). In a feat of symbiotics, O’Donnell also guest stars in the series: this time as an out-and-proud owner of a queer nightclub at a time when such a thing was not acceptable. And a characters’ attractiveness isn’t used as a joke at her expense.
It’s also two stories in one.
In the first, there’s Carson and her teammates, who are all white or Hispanic. They’re also nearly all queer and either very good at hiding it or operating under a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of existence. It’s D’Arcy Carden’s perfectly coiffed Greta, an update to Madonna’s “All the Way” Mae, who makes Carson bring forward the questions about herself that she’d long ago shoved to the back of her brain. Through Greta and others, we also see what it means (and what it takes) to “pass” at this time, and are reminded of the risks associated with letting your guard down or trusting someone with your truth in an era that was not only pre-Stonewall, but before a time when women could even open their own bank accounts.
But even this is a world of privilege; not just in regards to who gets to play ball, but where they’re allowed to do so.
The other, more interesting, storyline focuses on Chanté Adams’ Max. The daughter of a glass-ceiling breaking salon owner in Rockford, Max knows she’s a great pitcher. But, if it’s not sexism holding her back it’s racism. As a Black athlete, she’s not even allowed to try out to be on the Peaches. As a female athlete, she’s mocked for wanting to try out for the local factory’s team.
Max’s world is forcibly segregated from Carson’s; one that still has to operate in the kitchen of restaurants instead of the dining rooms, and that will be denied job opportunities unless there’s no one else willing or able to do them. Through her own family, Max has seen what it means to be ostracized for being your true self. The way she operates in the shadows compared to Greta is telling.
All of this is a heck of a lot to cram into eight, hour-long episodes. And yet, the writers don’t stop there. They still try to tackle other issues like war-related PTSD and the mistreatment of Black American soldiers. The show is as much a comedy as HBO’s Succession is a drama. It doesn’t have the heartfeltness of Marshall’s film, even if it is a more accurate historical representation of that period, and even if it tries to lighten the mood with throwback references to the movie (there’s still no crying in baseball, in case you were wondering).
But it’s also silly and unfair to expect it to be just like the movie. This series isn’t a reboot, revival, or reimagining. Simply put: Jacobson and Graham have used a known IP to spend worthwhile time digging deeper into that time period’s veneer of ragged hair and men in crisp uniforms who make women swoon. Now it’s just a matter of whether audiences will batter up and hear their call.
A League of Their Own premieres with three episodes August 12th on Amazon Prime Video.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.