Many of the familiar trappings of Penny Marshall’s beloved, same-titled 1992 movie are intact in the new Amazon series A League of Their Own (August 12). It’s 1943, and the horror of war rages on far-flung shores. Meanwhile, in America, there is still need of something diverting and harmless enough as baseball. With the men away fighting, women are enlisted to entertain the masses, an opportunity that brings these intrepid few into experiences otherwise unimaginable at that time. That homey, nostalgic spirit ably survives the movie-to-series adaptation.
But there’s also something decidedly different about the show, from creators Abbi Jacobson (who also stars) and Will Graham. The characters talk in disarmingly modern ways, using terms entirely anachronistic to their time and place. One baseball player says, “fucking epic.” Another character says, “Read the room.” It’s a jarring disconnect, this contemporary phraseology (and, in some cases, worldview) bonking up against not only the period setting, but our memories of the movie, which was more intent on mimicking the speech patterns of the World War II era (or , at least, those seen in movies and newsreels).
Many of the performances—from Jacobson, D’arcy Carden, Chante Adams, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Roberta Colindrez, Kate Berlant, and others—all too readily match the 2020s sensibility of the language. It’s a talented ensemble, but what they’re asked to play, and how they’ve chosen to play it, doesn’t always sync with what is supposed to be the world of the series.
Which isn’t to say that everyone needed to put on some mid-century, “Aw geez, buster” shtick. That could have landed with just as much of a clang. But there maybe could have been a balance between the old and the new, a more textured way to put these actors of the present into a believable fantasy of the past. Beyond some “they did it better in the movie” sniffing, the series’s vernacular—both linguistic and something more ineffable, something coded in the characters’ behavior—does a slight disservice to the themes it’s admirably trying to explore.
Crucially, the series dives deeper into the political and social realities of its setting than did the film. (Which really barely touched them all.) Racial inequities are acknowledged throughout the show: Adams’s character, aspiring local pitcher Max, must venture down an almost entirely separate storyline from the members of the Peaches of Rockford, Illinois because she is banned from even trying out for the league that employs the rest of them.
Sexuality takes central focus. Many of the women in the league (and out of it) are queer, living lives of varying degrees of discretion as they fall in love, and into bed, with one another. These scenes are the series at its most vital: Jacobson’s married catcher Carson warily drawing closer to Carden’s alluring and sophisticated Greta; Max’s flirtations with an underground community she never knew existed in her town, let alone in her family. It’s a freeing feeling, watching the historical record being corrected to honor the closeted and not-so-closeted lives that so many descriptions of the past overlook or outright deny.
The Millennial-inflected dialogue hampers that project, though. How much more keenly would we feel these women’s struggle, and their ecstatic release and discovery, if they were more firmly situated in the era the show is trying to enlighten? In its present form, A League of Theirs seems lost in time, forsaking nuanced approximations of then for the comfortable looseness of today. A League of Their Own affords the people of the past pleasures and joys they surely did have in those days, however clandestinely and riskily. But it’s all too rigidly framed in 21st century terms.
Those quibbles aside, the show’s queer plots are appropriately complex and exciting. And they’re acted with care and thought by a harmonious ensemble. Carden is a slinky-sad wonder, keeping Greta at a protective distance even when she’s baring her soul—thus making her ever more intriguing. Colindrez’s flint and mettle, as star pitcher Lupe, stand in considered contrast to Jacobson’s flustered naivety, both representing different (and recognizable) waystations on the spectrum of self-realization.
Outside of that collective, Ikumelo is a standout. What begins as a sketch of a role—she’s Clance, Max’s steadfast best friend—gradually evolves into a dynamic character. Ikumelo gives Clance the grace of idiosyncrasy, and shrewdly delineates the developing cracks in her friendship with Max. I should also mention that the great Dale Dickey has a nice supporting role as the Peaches’ chaperone—it’s fun seeing Dickey as a prim marm type, rather than the tough-cookies she usually plays.
The baseball scenes have all the whiz and thwack we’d hope for. When players connect with the ball or make some daring slide into second base (which they also do off the field, incidentally), the show really sells the game. It’s enough to make this sports-averse viewer consider heading out to Coney Island to see the Cyclones.
As it reaches its final, A League of Their Own conjures up the same heady, wistful feeling so essential to the film. And, really, essential to all stories like these: of rare and fleeting opportunity seized, of promising new futures emerging even if they will be only briefly tenable. These pioneers have banded together and then must, as so many things go, drift off on their own separate trajectories with a new spark in their souls. It’s potent stuff. I wish, though, that we really felt that these engaging folks were heading off into the rest of the troubled, ever-shifting 1940s—instead of back to Los Angeles to await word of another season.