“A League of Their Own” feels momentous. I didn’t expect that going in. My read was that it would be a familiar property hauled out of storage for a quick cash-in. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I judge an adaptation or remake by the same question as I judge something original: does it have a reason for being? Does it succeed at that reason? “A League of Their Own” has more reason for being than the vast, vast majority of what’s out there.
You might know the story from the original 1992 movie starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, and Madonna. It follows the the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a league founded in 1943 to keep baseball going during World War II. The biggest difference between the movie and the series is that the subtext isn’t subtext anymore. Many players have spoken about how the AAGPBL had a number of queer players. What wasn’t allowed to feature in the 40s, or the 90s, can finally become the central story in 2022.
A Note on Remakes
Let’s get one thing out of the way. There are a dozen specials, features, and documentaries on Tom Brady. ESPN just ran a 10-part, 10-hour special on the dude, advertised every commercial break. More than 600 women played in the progenitor of women’s professional sports in the U.S. They’ve got two films and a smattering of documentaries. “A League of Their Own” was unlikely to be greenlit by any other name.
We salivate at rebooted Spider-Men from 20 years ago re-appearing, and get angry that Michael Keaton’s return as Batman after 30 years got shelved by HBO’s new ownership. But two “A League of Their Own” stories, how could we? What horror! And why? Is “Top Gun” or “Jurassic Park 6: Jurassic World 3” or “The Batman: Still Not the One from Red Son” or “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” making a statement that couldn’t be made 30 years ago? I like some of those films; I’ll watch dinosaurs read a phone book…but their reasons for being aren’t particularly strong.
It’s 2022. A series about the AAGPBL couldn’t be told honestly in 1992. Republicans and half of Democrats still couldn’t get over 80s rock music lyrics, let alone Hollywood bankrolling an honest, star-studded film about queer people. “A League of Their Own” is one of the few remakes out there that can take advantage of the 30 years that have passed since the original film. It’s one of the few reboots that can do more than simply make a statement – it can tell stories that we didn’t allow to be told except as coded, buried subtext 30 years ago.
On with the Review
We follow two stories, sometimes intersecting but more often parallel. Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City” plays Carson Shaw, a catcher recruited from Idaho who runs away from home while her husband is overseas fighting in the war. What she’s running away from may not be home so much as the perceptions of what’s normal for her. The team is its own bubble and, even if she didn’t plan for it, it’s a place for her to explore parts of herself she’s repressed most of her life.
We also follow Max Chapman, a pitcher who isn’t allowed to try out for the league because she’s Black. She wants to play more than anything, and brainstorms a way to join the local company team instead – which means getting a job there first.
The ensemble is excellent – Gbemisola Ikumelo is Max’s best friend Clance, who’s obsessed with comic books and their lessons. Max’s mother and father, played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Alex Desert, are realized beautifully.
On Carson’s team, the Rockford Peaches, the supporting cast similarly runs the comedic and dramatic gamut. D’arcy Carden’s Greta stands out because she stands out to Carson, and Roberta Colindrez’s Lupe, Melanie Field’s Jo, and Kelly McCormack’s Jess are also highlights.
I like the depth of representation apparent in “A League of Their Own”. The major experiences of focus are those of LGBTQ+ and Black characters, but there’s room for a range of characters. Clance’s husband deals with social anxiety. Kate Berlant’s Shirley Cohen copes with OCD and, even if we’re still at a point where it’s played for laughs at points, there are expressions of it I recognize and share that mean a lot to see on-screen without judgment attached.
There’s a running subplot of racism toward Latines that isn’t forgotten either, as Colindrez’s pitcher Lupe is announced as ‘Spanish’ so the crowd isn’t repulsed by her being Mexican (I’ve had ‘friends’ do this), is passed over for a job (got told it to my face), and is socially blamed for a fight she didn’t start (ah, junior high). That these are all still common show some things haven’t come very far.
To see these other experiences folded in so organically, as parts of the world that are acknowledged, that hurt and that characters we care about legitimately work their way through – it feels real. In between the comedic set-ups and often lighthearted banter, there’s a depth of realness at play in “A League of Their Own” that many shows don’t achieve.
I think this is aided by the crew being fairly diverse as well. If you’re writing something as if you know it, it helps to know it. Lead and co-showrunner Jacobson is bi. Ikumelo is one of the primary writers.
Jamie Babbit directs the first three episodes. Known for biting satire like “But I’m a Cheerleader”, her experience on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” equipped her to bring another era to life with texture and detail. The production elements – design, set, costume, they’re all top-notch. Babbit also knows how to present these experiences, being one of the earlier out lesbian directors in the industry.
Episode directors Anya Adams, Ayoka Chenzira, and Katrelle Kindred are all Black. The four writers who worked on seven of the eight episodes include Black, Iranian-American, and trans writers. Those brought in for an episode are two Black writers and a Latina writer. That’s not to give you a checklist of diversity; it’s certainly not the only thing that matters about them. It’s to say the stories being told are largely coming from the people who have lived them. That’s crucial, and it delivers a veracity that stories tackling these issues can sometimes miss.
Many films and series still tackling these experiences are still told by those who haven’t lived them, or by those who bring in a writer from a specific background for that episode in what’s still a largely straight, white, male writers room. You may have LGBTQ+ or Black voices as part of the mix, but that doesn’t often mean featuring them at the fore, and that’s what makes something unique in a landscape that’s always required those voices to be coded at best.
There are some hiccups, but none seem major. There are brief moments here or there where the pacing or rhythm of dialogue seems like it’s not settling into its groove right, but this is pretty common early on in period ensemble pieces. It’s usually ironed out over the first few episodes as the cast finds each others’ rhythms, and that’s the case here, too.
The approach to dialogue here is to meld speech of the era to modern ways of speaking that people can identify with more readily. The dialogue isn’t meant to be accurate to the time, but rather a meld and I think it works well once you realize this is the approach. The most important thing for a comedy is that it’s funny, and the lines almost entirely hit the mark while the personalities always do. There’s something more here, too, and that’s a sense of joy I’ll talk about in a minute.
The parallel stories “A League of Their Own” tells follow different paces. Carson’s story with the team is filled with interweaving arcs of her will they/won’t they relationship, power dynamics with their egotist coach, wins and losses, injuries, and the league’s attempt to make them “palatable” for men.
By contrast, Max’s story is one of not playing. She’s more isolated, and while she shares scenes with others, the fast-paced ensemble nature of the team’s storytelling slows here to a more isolated and singularly driven story. The slower nature of her arc, at least initially, means that the pacing can lurch between the two a bit.
Carson’s story can feel lean and efficient, evoking a whirlwind pace at times, while Max’s feels expansive and thoughtful, often settling into its longer moments. These ways of doing things are what each story needs, and they’re both done well. You do have to adjust to the pace of things accelerating or decelerating back and forth as the stories switch.
I’m a cishet man – I’m not qualified to be the judge of how important this is or how much it gets right when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people or history. To me, it feels important. It feels momentous. It feels like it goes further than a lot out there is still allowed to because these characters are allowed to be fully human, complex, making mistakes and regretting missed opportunities. It doesn’t feel like we’re in an era yet where every LGBTQ+ character is allowed to be as complex as cishet characters have enjoyed for the entire history of film. Many are still emblems, there to represent something as much as they are to exist within the characters’ lives. That can be aspirational and important in many ways, but it’s also important to have enough out there, enough stories being told, enough characters represented that there are those who are realistic and imperfect and flawed as well, told by the beautifully real people whose history this is.
The characters in “A League of Their Own” feel deep, full, rich, complex, so real. They feel like they’re given the storytelling freedom that cishet characters have always enjoyed, and I wish that weren’t so rare as to be remarkable. This is beautiful queer storytelling about LGBTQ+ people and queer history.
The people who are given the financing and platforming to make series and films in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly straight. At the same time, we complain about feeling like the same stories are told over and over again. That’s not because of adaptations or remakes like this. It’s because we see the same perspectives over and over again, the same storytelling priorities from the same narrow band of culture that’s dominated the stories that get marketed, the same narrow range of cultural touchstones.
“A League of Their Own” feels like a breath of fresh air because that’s exactly what it is. It’s told from a perspective that couldn’t have gotten a story this expansive or expensive on a major streaming service even 10 years ago. We know the story, we know the history, we know the framework of “A League of Their Own”, but much of what’s meaningful inside of it, the elements of substance inside of it and stories like it, have been watered down up until these last few years. We have culturally bottled up and forced entire histories to be subtext, allusion, metaphor, code.
“A League of Their Own” is beautiful because it gets to tell this story openly, bluntly, joyfully, and even if the era it addresses was the height of subtext and code, and it must address that fear and alienation, the perspective of how the story is told, of what is prioritized, of how it’s spoken into being feels so overdue. If you want something new, look for the voices that have always been there, but have only just now been given the platforms to tell their stories bluntly. Become enrapt in someone else’s joy for their histories never taught that can finally be told.
You can watch “A League of Their Own” on Amazon.
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