A League Of Their Own Review: A Bold Swing That Partly Misses

You could make the strong argument that "A League of Their Own" is the very best baseball movie. It deftly balances the built-in tension of any game within America's national pastime with character work, pathos, and some of the most memorable one-liners of the last 40 years. But it would be a lie to say that the 1992 Penny Marshall comedy, a period piece set in the mid-1940s that follows the arc of the first season of an all-women's baseball league during World War II, got everything right. One notable moment features a Black woman revealing herself to have a hell of an arm when she throws an errant baseball back to the film's heroine Dottie (Geena Davis). And the film's undertones of what "makes" a woman feminine, such as "proper manners" or makeup, belie a potential discussion on LGBTQ+ framing in a story that's less invested in male/female romance than female friendship.

This is all to say that while "A League of Their Own" is a classic film, it is not a perfect one, and it is ripe enough for a redo thirty years later. Enter Abbi Jacobson of "Broad City" and co-creator Will Graham, of "Mozart in the Jungle," who have refashioned an eight-episode adaptation of "A League of Their Own" for Prime Video. The new "League" tackles racial integration and sexuality head-on, doing so with varying levels of success in an adaptation that, by its conclusion, feels less invested in adapting a beloved film as much as it feels trapped by that film as it tries to spread far beyond its main focus.

Though the outlines of the 1992 film are present throughout the first few episodes of "A League of Their Own" (I've seen all eight episodes of the first season, premiering all together on August 12), it's evident from the opening scene that this will not be a beat-for-beat retelling. Jacobson stars as Carson Shaw, a housewife from Idaho first seen hightailing it to a train in the hopes of being considered as a recruit to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Though Carson, like Dottie Hinson, is a skilled catcher who is underestimated and proves her worth over time, her journey is singular — there's no corollary in the show to Dottie's kid sister Kit (Lori Petty). Instead, some of Carson's character traits serve as a blend of Dottie's headstrong nature and Kit's persistence. More importantly, while Carson's husband (Patrick J. Adams) is overseas fighting in the war, Carson's essentially running away from him and her home to take part in the AAGPBL tryout.

All of this is captured in a headlong rush in the first five minutes of the opening episode, which also introduces us to more modernized versions of characters played in the film by Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, and the other women who become part of the Rockford Peaches. By the end of the opening hour, two of the leads have embarked on a tentative romantic relationship, one of many same-sex couplings depicted throughout the first season. In some ways, this "League of Their Own" is very much like the film, capturing some subplots with striking similarities. And in some ways, the show is emphatically and drastically different, or it at least tries to be.

Perhaps the most notable difference throughout is that while Jacobson serves as the main lead, she's equally matched by Chanté Adams as Max, or Maxine, a young Black woman living in Rockford who's gifted with an incredible pitching arm but is saddled by ... well, by being a young Black woman in the American Midwest of the 1940s. She tries and fails to make headway at the AAGPBL tryouts because the league was not integrating Black women at the time. But that setback aside, Max is arguably the second lead of "League," as she tries to break into the world of baseball any way she can (but without being a direct part of the Rockford Peaches' ascent in the AAGPBL's first season). If there is a grim reality against which this show's creative aims struggle, it's the attempt to reconcile 21st-century progressivism with the harsh and disturbing facts that being a woman, and being Black, lent very few athletic opportunities in the 1940s. To focus on a Black woman's rise in baseball in the 1940s is to create a fascinating set of dramatic obstacles, but those obstacles run counter to the main Peaches storyline. Adams is quite good as Max, and her storyline often manages to a) be the most compelling in a given episode and b) exist in what feels like a totally separate world from the rest of the show.

Within the Peaches' storyline, there is a clear victor among the ensemble: the delightful and charming D'Arcy Carden as Greta Gill (this series' version of the Madonna character), a beautiful, snappy, and enigmatic player who sets her eyes on Carson from the moment they meet at the AAGPBL tryouts. Anyone who watched Carden on "The Good Place" will not be surprised that she's the MVP of this show, too; if this show does anything right, it lets Carden steal the show in every scene.

No crying in baseball

The flip side is that if there's anything genuinely disappointing — and arguably baffling — about the adaptation, it's in how the manager role once originated by Tom Hanks is handled. Now, following in Hanks' footsteps — playing a loutish ex-MLB player who can barely stand straight for being constantly hung over and is now the barely willing manager of female ballplayers — is a tough task. On paper, casting Nick Offerman as a similarly loutish ex-player (this time a man named "Dove" Porter) is about as close to a win as possible. While Offerman does his able best with the material, he has extremely little material to work with (to say more would be to spoil too much of the show's season-long arc). By the end of the season, it would have been creatively difficult to imagine a scenario where Porter wasn't present, but the writers barely crafted an arc for him.

It feels largely necessary for anyone watching this "League of Their Own" to do their best to ignore the 1992 film. Though some of that movie's most quintessential moments are recreated, those moments have little potency and feel like they were demanded by Amazon's executives. (Yes, a character shouts "There's no crying in baseball!" during this show. No, it is not remotely funny or effective.) Where "League" is strongest is in teasing out the various ways in which women were trapped by societal norms in the 1940s. All of the women who become part of the AAGPBL (as well as Max on the other side of Rockford) are depicted as standing slightly on the edges of acceptable society, struggling to be embraced by that society without changing who they are, despite that society flatly rejecting them for being athletic and aggressive, and for who they love.

These strengths of the show are, of course, pretty much antithetical to what happens in the movie, where the commentary about certain characters' physical appearance — Marla Hooch, who's treated as a lost cause by a team of women trying to apply a makeover upon her — is often counterbalanced with many of the women being defined by their romantic relationships with local men or, in the case of Dottie, her husband. The new "League" sidesteps most of the film's romantic angles to lean heavily into being more squarely about being lesbian in a time when that preference was treated as something akin to a mental illness by a more puritanical society. The conflicts here, as the women of the Rockford Peaches traverse their first year in the world of baseball, are as much about how society will treat them for who they love, as about whether or not they'll be able to accept themselves, and those conflicts are less successful when focusing on the larger societal concerns. Within the team, someone finding out that another of her fellow players is "queer" (the term bandied about in the show's 40s-era vernacular) is treated in one episode as a big, concerning cliffhanger, and then tossed off as a jokey resolution in the following one.

"A League of Their Own" the show is messy and strange and not often successful, unlike the film on which it's based. The ensemble cast is top-to-bottom solid (among the supporting players, the always-funny Kate Berlant is especially well-cast as the neurotic Shirley), and some of the storylines would almost be more fascinating if they weren't tied down to the needs of building the season around a scrappy underdog sports show. (On a truly nitpicky level, the way this show depicts the basic act of throwing a baseball around, whether through pitching or infielders handling a ground ball, is vexing because every throw seems heavily CGI-enhanced, implying the actresses didn't have that much athletic ability, which is a weird vibe to create.) Parts of "A League of Their Own" work, on their own, but when this show feels the need to re-connect itself to its source material, it stumbles.

"A League of Their Own" premieres August 12, 2022 on Prime Video.