Amazon’s ‘A League of Their Own’ Updates a Classic Sports Comedy With a More Inclusive Eye
Peak TV is turning into the place where classics return to be resurrected as longer series. “A League of Their Own” makes the wise choice of not attempting to completely copy the original 1992 movie, which is one of the great American sports films. At the time it brought back to the public eye how during World War II, major league baseball began focusing on women athletes to keep the industry going while the men were off fighting. The result was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943 to 1954. Penny Marshall’s movie was a fun bit of nostalgia with a feminist spirit. It was also funny. This Amazon show retains the comedy but is a much more urgent take on the material, focusing more closely on the women’s sexual identities and the racism of the era. Overall, it’s not superior to the movie, but is still an enjoyable, enlightening experience despite some odd structural choices.
There’s no opening recap of how the war is affecting society or how the League is formed. Right off the bat we meet Carson Shaw (Abbi Jacobson), whose husband is enlisted overseas. Carson arrives in Chicago from Idaho farmlands for the League’s tryouts. She meets fellow aspiring baseball players Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden) and Jo De Luca (Melanie Field). The team being formed is the Rockford Peaches, to be coached by Dove Porter (Nick Offerman). Carson, Greta and Jo make the cut, while Max (Chanté Adams), who is Black American, does not. These women are nonetheless linked by specific forms of social prejudice. Carson is attracted to Greta and the two soon become lovers. Max refuses to accept that she can’t play ball and still tries her best to try joining other teams, which is made difficult by the fact that she is Black and a woman in ‘40s America. As the Rockford Peaches begin to tour, Carson and Greta have to keep their sexual activities secret from everyone as the team tries to win games and prove their worth to a skeptical, misogynist public.
Created by Jacobson and Will Graham, “A League of Their Own” admirably tries to broaden the reach of the material while also trying too hard to be contemporary. One of the challenges facing showrunners trying to bring modern sensibilities to period material is that the norms of today just don’t apply. Characters in this series talk and joke in the language of someone from 2022, not 1943. Even the soundtrack takes us out of the period by using The Runaways and Janis Joplin, while trying to maintain the look of a nostalgic TV show. Of course there were lesbian and bisexual players in the AAGPBL. The story of one such player, Terry Donahue, was wonderfully captured last year in the Netflix documentary “A Secret Love.” So the show does an excellent job of emphasizing this aspect of the team’s world and how Carson and Greta have to carry on a secret, bittersweet affair. In one poignant scene while on the road, Greta makes the observation that this fling might just remain nothing more than a nice memory once the war ends and husbands return home.
Another strong story element is the parallel narrative involving Max, who refuses to let go of her baseball dreams and to her family’s frustration, decides to work at a factory to try and join its baseball team. At times this storyline can be more entertaining than following the Rockford Peaches around, because Max truly has to struggle to prove herself to her family, friends and extremely doubtful white men. More than once, the Max sections feel like they could be an entirely different show. This is a fictional account, like the 1992 movie, and so it takes liberties for the sake of representation, such as throwing in a Cuban player for the Peaches, Esti (Priscilla Delgado) who is underused and seems to only function as a token Latinx character who can throw some Spanish lines around. On the positive side, it is good to see the series nod at Cuba’s important baseball culture.
Other corrections also take away from what made the movie so enjoyable and also a window into a different era. Coach Dove Porter is so nice and understanding, unlike Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan, the tobacco-chewing alcoholic who has to get over his initial, misogynist doubts over the Peaches’ capabilities. The famous line, “there’s no crying in baseball,” is uttered in this show, but without the uncomfortable toughness of the ‘92 film. Carson is meant to replace Geena Davis’s lead character with supermodel looks in the original, but while she’s a much tougher personality, Davis captured better the idea that these women had been conditioned by society to be seen as pretty housewives. Their playing baseball was a form of defiance of a conservative order and that can be scary when you’ve been told by society things have to be a certain way. Understandably, none of the cast has the presence of Madonna as well, who in the movie played the most outgoing, bold team member, flaunting her sex appeal like a rebel flag. Yet this is merely a point of comparison, because by shifting angles, the series holds its own with fresh material. It would have been less engaging if it tried to copy every single aspect of the film.
As an ensemble show, “A League of Their Own” is perfectly cast, with excellent performances all around. The players are all likable and have their own distinct traits Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, a Puerto Rican who acts as the unofficial translator of buddy Esti. Gbemisola Ikumelo is endearing as Max’s best friend Clance, who doesn’t play ball but faces challenges involving her own relationship and the need to find factory work to have economic stability. While there are many fun baseball scenes, the greater drama is not on the diamond but in the struggles of Carson, Greta and Max. The former two have to keep their attraction a secret, while having to find the space to be alone, while the latter has to strive to prove her worthiness as a player and human being. There’s a great scene where Max tries out to be the factory team’s pitcher and in a furious moment, bets a week’s wages she can out pitch all the men. Maybe “A League of Their Own” can’t quite catch up to the movie, but moments such as these demonstrate why it’s still worth seeing for what it has to say.
“A League of Their Own” season one begins streaming Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.