Apologies in advance, but the pun has to be made: Pitch has struck out. To fans of the just-canceled freshman Fox drama, the news isn’t a huge shock. If a low-rated new series hasn’t been renewed by early May, when networks clean house to make room for the fall season pickups they’ll unveil in the coming weeks, its fate has long been sealed. (In fact, most fans likely knew what was up once Fox declined to order any further episodes past the December finale, leaving Pitch conspicuously missing from its midseason lineup.) But it’s worth lamenting the loss of Pitch, which made as forceful a case for the feel-good-but-never-cheesy broadcast drama as any show on air last season. In a perfect world, Pitch might have proved there’s a better way, or at least a more nuanced one, to make a broadcast drama — that genuine emotion and winning characters are enough to launch a non-procedural into the stratosphere. Instead, the show’s cancellation suggests that in 2017, human-sized emotions and the humans who feel them aren’t quite enough to succeed on broadcast TV.
Following the (fictional) first female player in Major League Baseball, Pitch was cocreated by Dan Fogelman, who also launched This Is Us last year. The contrast between the two shows is slightly too neat, but essentially accurate: where Pitch was little-watched, This Is Us is a massive hit, renewed after a single season for two more at NBC after attracting a mass audience with an original idea. In lieu of intellectual property, however, This Is Us relies on other cheap tricks, among them sentimentality and a structure that favors surprise over story. Fogelman, who also wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love., adores nothing more than a twist. But unlike This Is Us, Pitch kept its “gotcha!” moments to the pilot. After we find out in the closing minutes of the premiere that the tough-love dad who coached Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) to the San Diego Padres is actually dead, Pitch let Ginny’s struggles with the team, the press, and her own self-confidence stand on their own. Of the two shows, Pitch came by its heart more honestly — and fizzled almost immediately. The comparison with This Is Us might be unfair, but it’s also unavoidable.
Last summer, showrunner Kevin Falls told the Television Critics Association that Pitch was designed as “The West Wing for baseball,” and in its 10 episodes, the show demonstrated it had all the makings of a Sorkin-style charmer: witty banter that captured the feeling of eavesdropping on seasoned professionals while still being accessible; a rich ensemble cast encompassing everyone from owner to player to family members; and most importantly, will-they-won’t-theys tenuous enough to last an entire series — between Ginny and aging playboy catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and between the handsome GM (Mark Consuelos) and the coach’s daughter.
But after Pitch failed to catch on — less than 3 million viewers an episode, compared to more than 6 million for Fox’s cynical-yet-charming reboot of Lethal Weapon — there wasn’t much to keep it on the air. Pitch was well-liked by critics, but it wasn’t adored the way the even less popular Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is. Besides, Fox isn’t the CW, and wasn’t in need of a critical darling to attract good press and update its brand. For niche appeal, Fox already has The Last Man on Earth. Pitch was going to live as a broad-ranging, popular success or it wasn’t going to live at all.
Pitch’s official end comes on the heels of another frustrating cancellation for a female-led series: Sweet/Vicious, the MTV drama about two college students taking the problem of campus sexual assault into their own hands. Like Sweet/Vicious, Pitch took on the standard empowerment narrative of a woman in a male-dominated space from an unexpected angle. And like Sweet/Vicious, Pitch had the makings of something addictive. These weren’t artsy gender studies seminars, or molasses-slow prestige fare. They were pulpy (who doesn’t like punching?) or crowd-pleasing (who doesn’t like a baseball game, especially when it’s edited down to just 10 minutes?). Representation was only part of the fun.
Fogelman still has the capital to get pretty much anything he wants made next. (That might be one reason why Fox waited this long to announce the inevitable.) I hope it’ll be something more like Pitch than This Is Us: glossy and snappy, yet deeply felt where it counts. Pitch didn’t get a second chance, but its vision for what network TV can be deserves one.