TV Review: FX's 'The League'
Even an avid fantasy sports fan like The Fien Print couldn't find much to laugh at in FX's new comedy
Because of fantasy sports, I was a Red Sox fan rooting for Alex Rodriguez all season.
Because of fantasy sports, even though I couldn't care less about the Redskins, I died a little inside every time DeSean Jackson made it into the end zone this past Monday night.
Because of fantasy sports, I know that any chump can follow top-level minor league prospects, but only the true obsessives are scouring the high school or college ranks for catchers with line-drive power or corner infielders who might somehow have second base eligibility.
Because of fantasy sports, or at least my seasonal (April to January, mostly) dedication to them, I approached FX's new comedy "The League" with a tremendous amount of good will.
And, unexpectedly enough, "The League" doesn't fall flat due to its depiction of fantasy sports. When the show bothers to concentrate on the freaky, addictive, maniacal work of roto fanatics, it does so with a well-calibrated mixture of deserved mockery, condescending pity and bemused respect. However, by the second episode, fantasy football becomes only a background element of "The League" and it becomes clear that what the show isn't nearly as comfortable with, alas, is comedy.
[Full review of "The League" after the break...]
"The League" focuses on a group of buddies -- played by Nick Kroll, Mark Duplass, Stephen Rannazzis, Jon Lajoie and Paul Scheer -- who take part in a head-to-head fantasy football league, complete with a live draft party and a league message board for homoerotic trash talk and general gridiron bluster.
[Ack. My Inner Quibbler just escaped. He wants me to point out that these guys take this stuff awfully seriously for an eight-team league. Most of the serious players I know, play in 10 or 12 team leagues, because that's when you start drafting real sleepers and that's when you're able to showcase some fancy-pants knowledge. With an eight-team league, you should pretty much be able to get All-Pros at every position, because you're not getting very deep. And eight-team league is shallow enough that you really shouldn't need an expert to assist you with your drafting, because at no point should you really be drafting a player who isn't a top-tier player at any position.
Along those lines, looking at the season's second episode, a trade goes down involving Fred Taylor and Tory Holt, plus some blackmail. Blackmail is a valid fantasy baseball tool regardless of the size of your league. But Fred Taylor, now somewhere down the depth chart in New England, wasn't drafted in most 12 team leagues these year and he certainly wasn't drafted in smaller leagues. Torry Holt's a bit more ambiguous.
My Inner Quibbler was also going to pull out his usual complaint regarding diversity on network or cable comedies. Then My Inner Quibbler went through the owner rosters for his three fantasy football leagues scouring for real world diversity. Let's just say he was ashamed enough to keep his mouth shut.]
There's a certain challenge to figuring out the connectivity between the guys, though there appear to be college friends, siblings and other assorted chums. As the defending champ, Duplass is kind of the focus of the ensemble because of his character's deteriorating marriage to a lovely woman played by Leslie Bibb, who I suspect we'll never see again. Rannazzisi's character is notable because everybody suspects (correctly) that his wife (Katie Aselton) is running his team. Kroll's character is a new father in dire need of sexual release. Lajoie plays musical pothead Taco. And that leaves Scheer as the richest member of the group, a scruple-free plastic surgeon.
The pitch for the show was probably something like "'My Boys' meets 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.'" It's got the manly camaraderie and bonhomie of "My Boys" (without that pesky "My Boys" suspicion that the writers have never watched a sporting event in their lives), but with the vicious misanthropy of "Always Sunny." The characters in the league are pretty vicious to each other and nobody bothers to ground their interactions with the sort of friendly sentimentalizing that softens "My Boys." The women emasculate the men. The men emasculate the men. And fantasy football is something they do to restore order in their lives, or at least an alternative extension for the emasculation.
"The League" wants to be boundary-pushing in its language and subject matter, mostly along sexual lines, but creators Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer are much too self-congratulatory in the things that they're getting away with to make any of it funny, much less to do any storytelling or character development.
Instead of bothering with a narrative, the Schaffers are invested only in catchphrase-building. The first episode has a narrative thrust, thanks to the draft, but the second episode is almost all supposedly clever concepts delivered with capital letters. Eskimo Brothers. Porn Loophole. Sexual Freeze. Vaginal Hubris. Negging. It's no surprise that Jeff Schaffer wrote for both "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but having a fascination with minutiae and trend-spotting isn't the same as building catchphrases that might actually work their way into the vernacular. And the Schaffers are aware that most of their attempted neologisms aren't very good, or recylce concepts that other shows already fixated on previously, so they keep trying new ones, just in case something sticks. And each of the first two episodes have Taco singing amusingly inappropriate songs that are only there as fodder for viral videos (Lajoie arrives pre-equipped with his own online musical following, so the show will feed off of that).
But if the writers are trying too hard, the actors are coasting a little, or maybe their strengths aren't being played to properly?
Duplass was one of the real revelations at this winter's Sundance Film Festival with his performance in the heavily improvised comedy "Humpday," but asked to play a very conventional sitcom Everyman here, some of his elemental quirkiness is either lost or being wasted. If the producers were smart, they'd bring in Duplass' "Humpday" co-star Josh Leonard and just let those two go for a week. As it stands, Duplass is much too talented as a writer and actor to become so anonymous so easily. With broader characters, Kroll and Scheer get to be more memorable, but everybody's positioned to be upstaged by Lajoie.
The women, meanwhile, may not be depicted with any kindness, but they're still memorable, if only because early episodes feature guest appearances from ladies like Bibb and "My Name Is Earl" veteran Nadine Velazquez, who may be more recognizable than their male colleagues. I also think Aselton has some potential, if she doesn't get overwhelmed in this sausage-fest.
If the integration of fantasy sports and actual life were smoother, "The League" ought to be an evergreen franchise for FX. Even if these guys don't waste their entire summer on fantasy baseball, find a different group of eight or 10 who do. Or come winter, why not focus on a group of guys realizing how stupid fantasy basketball is, or trying out fantasy hockey because they're competition-junkies. Unfortunately, with its current execution, "The League" is just a frustration. To put it in a parlance these guys would understand, this initially is not a keeper "League."
"The League" premieres at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29 on FX.