New Peaches, new problems: 'A League of Their Own' makes a successful move to TV
It's 1943, and Carson Shaw is running as fast as she can.
Specifically, she's running to catch a train that will take her to Chicago for the tryouts of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, meant to fill a gap in baseball created when men who played professionally went off to war. This is how we begin the new Amazon series A League Of Their Own. Carson is played by Abbi Jacobson, late of Broad City, who co-created the series with Will Graham, a writer who's worked on projects as varied as Onion SportsDome and Mozart In The Jungle. It's a loving descendant of the 1992 film of the same name, as well as an ambitious effort to address its conspicuous gaps.
While this is the same baseball league as in the film (which existed in real life from 1943 to 1954), and the team is still the Rockford Peaches (can't give up those iconic pink-and-red uniforms), this is a separate story. Characters don't map directly from one version to the other. Where there were sisters Dottie and Kit (Geena Davis and Lori Petty), their hard-drinking coach Jimmy (Tom Hanks) and teammates like Mae and Doris (Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell), there's a wholly new set of characters here. Two sets, actually.
Carson is married and her husband is deployed, leaving her free to pursue baseball — at least for the time being — when she lands a spot with the Peaches. Their manager is a former player named Dove (Nick Offerman), and while there are superficial similarities between him and Jimmy Dugan (Offerman could have played the heck out of Jimmy had that been the direction they went), the character is used differently. His arc has the effect of keeping more of the focus on the team's women — and, perhaps, facing more straightforwardly the dismissive attitude the men in the league have toward the women who are playing. (Men in the world of baseball are, in general, reduced in prominence in this version.) With less of the manager than in the movie, there is more of the team's chaperone, played with sneaky kindness by Dale Dickey as an enforcer whose strictness exists alongside respect for the Peaches and what they're trying to do.
The series also tells the story, in parallel to the Peaches, of Max (Chanté Adams). She's a gifted Black pitcher local to Rockford who can't join the team, because the AAGPBL doesn't accept Black players. So Max, with the help and support of her best friend Clance (the positively sparkling Gbemisola Ikumelo), has to figure out where baseball fits into her life when the Peaches do not represent a world of possibility but another closed door. Her best opportunity seems to be a company team in Rockford — but it's also hostile to her, because it's a team of men representing a company of men.
Striking this balance — in which the AAGPBL is legitimately a life-changing opportunity for some women and a mechanism of racist exclusion for others — is not easy, even though the dynamic is very common in schools and workplaces and other organizations. The obvious cheat would be to have the Peaches magically integrated, but that would be a fantasy that is (fortunately) not pursued. Instead, the show sits with this tension and, at least in this season, doesn't particularly try to resolve it. It tells Max's and Carson's stories next to each other, with only occasional overlap.
It's not only on questions of race, though, that the series presses ideas that the film didn't; this is a story about women's sports that acknowledges queer women, women with varied gender expression, trans people, and the fact that policing of femininity often includes the risk of violence, both state-sanctioned and not. This doesn't come in the form of a single queer storyline, but in the stories of a lot of these women, who have different attitudes about sexuality and gender, and who make different choices about it. Moreover, they face different consequences that depend on their ability and willingness to maintain a precarious proximity to a narrow straight-white-pretty-thin-"feminine" ideal. It's less an attempt to explain that queer life in the 1940s for women was this, and more an exploration of the idea that it could be like this, or it could be like this, or it could be like this, depending on your circumstances and, to a degree, your choices.
The teammate Carson sparks to the most is a woman named Greta (D'Arcy Carden), who's come to tryouts with Jo (Melanie Field), the best friend to whom she's deeply devoted. Greta is beautiful and glamorous and has seemingly unbounded confidence as they embark on this adventure, where Carson finds her excitement tempered by nervousness. As she gets to know her teammates — Lupe (Roberta Colindrez), Jess (Kelly McCormack), Shirley (Kate Berlant) and more — Carson starts to settle in and find herself, as it were, as a different person from the Idaho wife she has been in the past. And when Greta treats her to a haircut, the energy between them is a surprise to Carson, perhaps a little bit less of a surprise to Greta.
There was much reason for skepticism about this adaptation. Attempts to take a property from the '90s and make it feel relevant — even a period piece — can feel tired or, worse, tiresome. Stick too close to the original and it feels like there's no reason to do it at all; stray too far and it feels like you should have just written an entirely new story instead. But what Jacobson and Graham are doing here is keeping the spine of the piece (the baseball), the aesthetic of it (the big-band feel of the early 1940s), and some of the emotional notes — about self-discovery, sacrifice, bonding with teammates, learning what you can accomplish that you didn't necessarily know you could, and loving people deeply. They then apply those notes to a broader set of characters and experiences, while adding more straightforwardly painful moments that make this lean more toward comedy-drama and less toward sports comedy than the film.
At the same time, there is a loyalty to the original that gives its fans a series of tips of the cap, including a small but lovely role for original cast member O'Donnell. Her character (whom you should encounter yourself in due time) seems intentionally created to acknowledge history, to thank the people who came before you, and to acknowledge who Doris was and was not allowed to be in 1992.
It's fair to note that there are beloved elements of the film that are muted in the show, particularly the baseball itself. It's still there, but the high-energy baseball montages full of slides and great catches and big moments do feel less prominent, as do the powerful joys of sequences like Mae dancing at the roadhouse. The shift toward players' personal stories is palpable, and a lot of those stories are suffused with difficulty, so the tone is less buoyant (and the themes more adult) on the whole.
Fortunately for all these personal stories, the performances are excellent. Adams is marvelously winning; she and Ikumelo build a stellar portrait of friendship between two women with very different ideas of what happiness will look like (both of which are respected as valid and worthy of support). Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Alex Désert as Max's parents, Toni and Edgar, have the difficult task of putting heart into a story that could make them — her, particularly — look cruel. It's partly in Ekulona's delicate performance that the context of Toni's unkindnesses, which she believes are entirely for Max's own good, becomes clearer.
The supporting Peaches — especially McCormack and Colindrez — use their screen time economically to establish specificity in these characters beyond being, well, supporting Peaches. D'Arcy Carden, who a lot of TV audiences will mostly know as Janet ("not a robot" but ... kind of a robot) on The Good Place, is warm and bold and quite dreamy in this role — deeply human, in fact. And Jacobson, certainly capable of excelling as a wacky comedy lead, offers a controlled central performance that anchors her part of the story but recognizes that Carson is fortunate and secure in her life compared to a lot of the women she's interacting with, and her attention to her own hurts has to be tempered by that knowledge. A show with its center of gravity on her struggles would not have worked.
There's a little more crying in baseball here than there was in 1992. The movie's comedic exploration of the ruthless judging of "tomboys" is expanded to incorporate the understanding that there were serious and perilous consequences that went along with that. And by making it a story of women in baseball and not just the Peaches, the series avoids the trap of confusing the history of an exclusionary institution for the history of an entire sport. It recognizes that it's not only possible, but quite common, to experience both discrimination and privilege within the same realm. It may not be precisely what fans of the film expect, but it stands on its own as a story about finding avenues of freedom within worlds that remain disappointingly limiting.
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