Amazon’s new series A League of Their Own is a quintessential example of rebooting content in the modern era. The show is a loose remake of the original 1992 movie of the same name, which in turn was a loose retelling of real history. Abbi Jacobson (who co-created Broad City with Ilana Glazer among other projects) and Will Graham are the creators, and each of them brings some of the distinctiveness of their past projects to the series. There is comedy and nostalgia in abundance, but the entire first season is run through with the themes of oppression and becoming that are only a brief undercurrent in the movie.
The series is obviously well made and expensive; the production design emulating the look and feel of the 1940s is particularly fantastic throughout. The issues of racism and sexuality that are the main crux of Amazon’s A League of Their Own were only alluded to in the original movie, but even with all the extra time, the show doesn’t go as deep as it could. With the attention divided between about a dozen characters and the time spent really delving into the themes the eight episodes barely feel able to contain it all and that lack of focus stops the viewers from creating a deep emotional attachment to the characters.
With one giant exception, those characters are mirror image versions of their movie counterparts. Carson Shaw (Jacobson) is one of the central protagonists of the show and she is the catcher for the Rockford Peaches, so of course, she seems a parallel for Gena Davis’s iconic Dottie Hinson character. (Copies of copies of the nature of being who we are being a big theme in shows these days.) But other than being really strong hitters Carson and Dottie are not similar at all. Carson is all awkward tics and fumbling while Dottie was powerful and commanding. Both have an entire subplot dedicated to their husbands who are away at war, but that is the endpoint for Dottie while with Carson it is quickly revealed to be the beginning. Because, the essential relationship the show wants to explore is not Carson and her husband, but Carson and Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden).
Greta, like Carson, is clearly modeled on a character from the movie—“All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna). And unlike Jacobson’s portrayal, Carden plays the role with much of the same flair that Madonna did. She is even best friends with Jo De Luca (Melanie Field) who stands in for Rosie O’Donnell’s Doris. (Rosie is in the show and once she shows up she is basically playing a character who is in many ways a combination of Doris and herself, in yet another example of the show’s mirrors upon mirrors.) In public, Greta Gill is a pin-up fantasy girl but in private she is much darker. Early on she manipulates Carson into kissing her. For a while it seems she did this just because she knows she can push people in that way, to force Carson to reveal her sexuality and hang it over her.
But the reality of Greta gets more real and complicated as the series progresses. She medicates her deep sadness with sex and humor and pushes the boundaries of her friends in an effort to push them away in self-defense. Greta Gill gets more fascinating by the minute and Carden, who is always great, really excels at playing her extremes. But the show has so much going on in every episode that it only has time for a few minutes with the character, and that makes the efforts to really speak to sexuality, identity, and our current reality harder to hold onto.
Thankfully a lot of that time is spent with the new main character who does not correlate directly to anyone from the movie, Max “Thunderbolt” Chapman (Chanté Adams). The movie had one brief scene where it was shown that Black women were explicitly excluded from the AAGBL and the incredible throw that the woman makes in that scene that proves she actually belongs is the starting point for Chapman’s character. Max is the embodiment of all the show’s thematic elements. She wants nothing more than to play baseball, and she is great at it, but she is excluded and discarded. Even this new league won’t let her play, which means she can’t find a place to belong. In the early going, we follow her trying to get onto a men’s team that is integrated by race but even then she can’t join due to her gender. Then we start to explore the fact that she too is a lesbian, which creates yet another barrier for her to overcome.
Max and Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) go on a journey of discovery that is super compelling even without the nostalgic trappings. Chapman and Ikumelo also have incredible timing and chemistry together, with comedic moments moving swiftly into dramatic set pieces. Their stories get more and more complicated throughout the season as it is even harder for them to find places to belong. Max’s superior talent eventually lands her a job on an otherwise all-male factory team that is far closer to the “big leagues” than the Rockford Peaches can even dream, but even once she gets so much, the harsh reality of the world keeps coming for her.
There are various moments from the movie presented, warped, and commented upon during the series. Greta is taunted by a tactless heckler at a team’s first game, one of the girls gets a huge makeover, and the team’s manager (Tom Hanks in the movie, and Nick Offerman here) displaying the charm that makes him so loved even when the character is sort of terrible.
In the early episodes the show keeps returning to the movie for inspiration, like it is just not quite confident enough to go out on its own. Likewise Carson Shaw can’t be the player she is destined to be because she keeps comparing herself to a more confident style of player—in our minds we see how she is not Dottie Hinson. But Dottie Hinson isn’t real, in the show she doesn’t exist and to use she is a looming, fictional figure. But this makes her memory bigger than reality because she is a legend. Like Max’s idol, the real-life Negro League superstar Josh Gibson, no one is quite as great as their legend. It seems that A League of Their Own (the series) is trying to show the realities behind the legendary figures in the movie. But it is also not as interested in the conflicts between the characters as it is in the way the characters conflict with society.
It doesn’t seem like it was entirely necessary to do so much setup, paralleling these characters to the ones from the movie, but the A League of Their Own series does do a good job of letting these ladies have their own interior lives. Most of the “there’s no crying in baseball” references are over by the middle of the season and the back half builds upon the themes of making your way in a world that wants to exclude you in ways that do lead to some really beautiful moments.
So the story is a bit muted. Still gorgeous, funny, and meaningful, but never allowed to be all it could be if it was just allowed the freedom to be itself. It is at its best when it focuses on Max and her journey which is just as interesting as the ones the Peaches go on but also feels more fraught and important. Just like the All-American Girls Baseball League and so many other great but ultimately doomed ideas, the series has a lot to say and a real job it wants to accomplish. But to be able to do that, A League of Their Own spends a little too much time on the ideals of the past when its best stories are really about the future.