New TV series ‘A League of Their Own’ is savvy adaptation : NPR
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It’s 1943 and Carson Shaw is running as fast as she can.
Specifically, she runs to catch a train that will take her to Chicago for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League tryouts, intended to fill a gap in baseball created when men who played professionally went off to war. This is how we start the new Amazon series A league apart. Carson is played by Abbi Jacobson, late vast citywho co-created the series with Will Graham, a writer who has 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 fill in its obvious shortcomings.
Although it’s the same baseball league as in the movie (which existed in real life from 1943 to 1954), and the team is still the Rockford Peaches (can’t give up those pink and red uniforms emblematic), it’s a separate story. Characters are not mapped directly from version to version. Where there were sisters Dottie and Kit (Geena Davis and Lori Petty), their drinking coach Jimmy (Tom Hanks) and teammates like Mae and Doris (Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell), there’s a whole 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 now — 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 Jimmy if that was the direction they went), the character is used differently. Her arc has the effect of putting more emphasis on the women on the team – and, perhaps, more directly confronting the dismissive attitude the men of the league have towards the women who play. (The men in the baseball world are, in general, downplayed in this version.) With less of a manager than in the movie, there’s more of a team chaperone, played with sly cuteness by Dale Dickey in as an enforcer whose rigor exists alongside respect for the peaches and what they are trying to do.
The series also tells the story, alongside Peaches, of Max (Chanté Adams). She’s a gifted black pitcher from 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 bubbly Gbemisola Ikumelo), must figure out where baseball fits into her life when peaches do. not represent a world of possibilities, but another closed door. His best opportunity seems to be a corporate team at Rockford – but she’s also hostile to him, as it’s a team of men representing a company of men.
Finding that balance – in which the AAGPBL is legitimately a life-changing opportunity for some women and a racist exclusion mechanism for others – is not easy, even though the dynamic is very common in schools, workplaces and other organizations. The obvious cheat would be to have the peaches magically integrated, but that would be a fantasy that is (thankfully) not pursued. Instead, the show sits with that tension and, at least in this season, doesn’t particularly try to resolve it. It tells Max and Carson’s stories side by side, with only occasional overlaps.
It’s not just on issues of race, however, that the series presses ideas that the movie didn’t; it’s a story about women’s sport that recognizes queer women, women of diverse gender expressions, trans people, and the fact that surveillance of femininity often includes the risk of violence, sanctioned by the State or not. This does not come in the form of a single queer storyline, but in the stories of a plot 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-white-fairly-thin-“feminine” ideal. It’s less of an attempt to explain that queer life in the 1940s for women was thisand more of an exploration of the idea that it might be like thisor it could be like thisor it could be like thisdepending on your situation and, to some extent, your choices.
The teammate Carson elicits the most is a woman named Greta (D’Arcy Carden), who has come to try out with Jo (Melanie Field), the best friend to whom she is deeply devoted. Greta is beautiful and glamorous and seemingly has unlimited confidence as they embark on this adventure, where Carson finds his excitement tempered by nervousness. As she gets to know her teammates – Lupe (Roberta Colindrez), Jess (Kelly McCormack), Shirley (Kate Berlant) and more – Carson begins to settle down and find herself, so to speak, like a different person from the Idaho woman she was in the past. And when Greta gives him a haircut, the energy between them is a surprise to Carson, maybe a little less of a surprise to Greta.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about this adaptation. Attempts to take a property from the 90s and make it relevant – even a vintage piece – can feel tired or, worse, boring. Stick too close to the original and you’ll feel like there’s no point; you stray too far and you feel like you should have written a whole new story instead. But what Jacobson and Graham are doing here is keeping the backbone of the piece (the baseball), its aesthetic (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 ratings to a broader set of characters and backgrounds, while adding more downright painful moments that make it lean more toward comedy-drama and less toward sports comedy than the movie.
At the same time, there’s a fidelity to the original that gives fans a series of cap tips, including a small but charming role for original actor O’Donnell. Her character (whom you should meet yourself in due course) seems intentionally created to acknowledge history, to thank those who came before you, and to acknowledge who Doris was and wasn’t allowed to be in 1992.
It’s fair to note that there are beloved elements from the film that are muted in the series, especially the baseball itself. It’s still there, but the high-energy baseball montages full of slides and big catches and big moments feel less important, as do the powerful joys of sequences like Mae dancing at the roadhouse. The shift towards players’ personal stories is palpable, and many of those stories are steeped in difficulty, so the tone is less dynamic (and the themes more adult) overall.
Fortunately for all these personal stories, the performances are excellent. Adams wins wonderfully; she and Ikumelo construct 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, in particular – cruel. It’s partly in Ekulona’s delicate performance that the context of Toni’s naughtiness, which she says is entirely for Max’s sake, becomes clearer.
Supporting Peaches – especially McCormack and Colindrez – use their screen time sparingly to establish the uniqueness of these characters beyond being, well, supporting Peaches. D’Arcy Carden, whom many viewers will know primarily as Janet (“not a robot” but…a kind of robot) on The right place, is warm and bold and quite dreamy in this role – deeply human, in fact. And Jacobson, certainly capable of excelling as a goofy comedy lead, delivers a controlled central performance that anchors his part of the story but acknowledges that Carson is lucky and secure in his life compared to many women she interacts with, and her attention to her own wounds must be tempered by this knowledge. A show with its center of gravity on its struggles wouldn’t have worked.
There’s a little more crying in baseball here than there was in 1992. The film’s comedic exploration of the ruthless judgment of “tomboys” is expanded to incorporate the understanding that there were grave and perilous consequences that accompanied it. And by making it a story of women in baseball and not just the Peaches, the show avoids the trap of confusing the story of an exclusionary institution with the story of an entire sport. He acknowledges that it is not only possible, but quite common, to experience both discrimination and privilege in the same area. 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 in worlds that remain disappointing.
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