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‘A League of Their Own’ Would Be Better If Its Characters Were Worse

The new Amazon series hews closely to the original film in many ways, but perhaps not the most important: creating tension-filled characters

Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

The important thing to remember about the beloved 1992 Penny Marshall comedy A League of Their Own is that Kit Keller suuuuuucks. She’s whiny, petty, and arrogant. She never shuts up. She thinks everyone’s out to get her. And if such a thing existed, she’d be firmly ensconced in the Hall of Fame of Awful Younger Sisters in Literature and Film. (Other honorees include: Amy March from Little Women, Mei Kusakabe from My Neighbor Totoro, Briony Tallis from Atonement.)

But it’s OK, because almost every character in the movie, even the ones who turn out to be forces for good, can be identified by their flaws. Jimmy Dugan is a chauvinist and a barely functioning alcoholic; even as the movie shows him getting his act together, he goes from not signing autographs for children to signing autographs filled with messages about venereal disease. Jon Lovitz’s Ernie Capadino is unabashedly crass and sexist, despite the fact that he’s helping to construct an institution that would become a pillar of American feminist folklore. Even the irreproachable Dottie Hinson throws a championship in order to avoid an awkward family dinner.

It’s ironic, then, that 30 years later, the film is seen as a sort of wholesome, feel-good family comedy—a fun PG-rated romp that sports-obsessed dads watch with their daughters. Its characters became so indelible because we were so intimately acquainted with their flaws. But all these decades on, it’s the sharp, pastel-colored Rockford Peaches dresses—not the bruises and scrapes players would pick up trying to play in them—that are the movie’s enduring image.

Amazon’s reimagining of A League of Their Own, which premieres Friday, certainly takes advantage of its format to explore warts even the film wouldn’t touch. This being a prestige (or at least prestige-ish) streaming drama, the players curse freely. They smoke, they drink, they sleep around—frequently with each other, something that was nearly as taboo in 1992 as it was in 1943. While the film merely nods at the fact that baseball was still segregated during World War II, the series devotes roughly half of its running time to the travails of a Black ballplayer, Max Chapman (Chanté Adams), who’s excluded from two avenues into organized baseball, one on account of her race and the other on account of her gender.

Given that the show’s first season runs for only eight episodes, it covers an impressive amount of ground. A League of Their Own explores not just the AAGPBL, as the original did, but it gets deeper into life during the war, and takes viewers into the places marginalized people carved out for themselves under the constant threat of violence.

And while the show sometimes gets bogged down by blunt didactic political messaging, it’s always dramatic—and always funny. This is hardly a surprise, since much of the cast comes from beloved TV comedies: Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden, Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman, Letterkenny’s Kelly McCormack, among others. Gbemisola Ikumelo, who plays Max’s best friend, Clance, is the best of the bunch; she gets at least one laugh-out-loud moment from almost every scene she’s in.

But the thing is, you like every character. And the show wants you to like them.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Some of the most beloved TV comedies of the past decade—Ted Lasso, the extended works of Michael Schur—have been explicitly wholesome, sometimes bordering on maudlin. It’s a reasonable response not just to the dark antihero TV of the early 21st century, but to a real world that gets scarier and more depressing with each passing hour. And without spoiling any specific plot points, A League of Their Own is not afraid to stare unflinchingly into the abyss of human cruelty.

But this remake goes out of its way to invite comparisons to the original, which sets a high bar the show frequently fails to clear.

A League of Their Own could’ve taken the concept of a women’s baseball league and gone in any number of directions: It could’ve been a feel-good comedy about a team in any era. It could’ve chosen to focus on a different team. Or it could’ve gone full-on alt-history and created a new world where the skirts and hairstyles and big band music remain, but the historical prejudices that created (and restrained) the AAGPBL were reduced or eliminated: The adventures of Dottie and Kit, by way of For All Mankind and Bridgerton.

Instead, it chose to make its main character the catcher for the Rockford Peaches, a married woman whose husband is on the verge of returning from war. (When will the Grand Rapids Chicks get their moment in the limelight?) The coach is a washed-up ex-MLB player. Direct allusions to memorable scenes, moments, lines, and action shots from the original come thick and fast. (Don’t worry, we only have to wait a few episodes before someone shouts, “There’s no crying in baseball!”) And every character—even minor characters—is likable, or at least understandable.

The lack of an out-and-out villain, or even a real antagonist, makes it hard to build tension and informs (or perhaps is informed by) the differences between the leads of the movie and the show. Dottie Hinson was self-assured and went through obstacles rather than around them. Jacobson’s Carson Shaw is implacably nervous and tentative—which arguably makes her a more relatable and interesting character, certainly over eight hours instead of two. But when the Peaches’ manager goes AWOL, Dottie just sets the lineup. When the same thing happens to Carson’s Peaches, she hems and haws and hesitates. Over the course of the season, Carson reckons with her timidity and lack of self-confidence. But the show shares those qualities and never quite gets over them. Like Carson, it seems afraid to step on anyone’s toes.

Even as our heroines are bent and beaten and belittled by the forces of structural prejudice, the show goes out of its way to reveal and explain the motivations of the people who stand in its protagonists’ way. When there’s interpersonal conflict within the team, it’s not because of a clash of personalities, it’s because of unexplored trauma and societal factors, sometimes to the point of excusing some pretty awful individual behavior as trying to do the right thing. So we’re left with a confusing paradox: a rotten world full of well-intentioned people.

One of the individual moments that gets lifted from the movie is a scene in which the team encounters a heckler early in the season. In the film, Ellen Sue hits the heckler in the chest with a baseball and knocks him on his back. In the show, Carden’s Greta strikes out while silently enduring catcalls that would never have made it into a PG-rated family comedy.

It’s a microcosm. For whatever reason, the A League of Their Own show is either unable or unwilling to pick a fight or anoint a villain. Every character has his or her own motivations and everyone else goes along to get along—and the story is weaker for it. Max’s story line is stronger than Carson’s because we get to watch Max come into conflict with people close to her as she figures out who she is. Like Jimmy and Kit in the original, she’s not always in the right or easy to root for, but her story is more believable as a result.

A remake doesn’t have to keep reminding viewers of its inspiration. Just two years ago, one of the stars of A League of Their Own, Patrick J. Adams, was in another TV remake of a movie from a generation ago: The Right Stuff. That show bears almost no resemblance to the original, apart from the title and the names of the characters. It’s just a brand.

A League of Their Own could’ve been successful without trying to be all things to all people. It didn’t have to weave together so many disparate story lines; it didn’t have to touch on so many sensitive social issues; it didn’t have to invoke some of the feel-good-iest TV of the era (viewers might reject the idea of Ron Swanson or Janet from The Good Place playing a morally ambiguous character). And it didn’t have to do all that while begging to be compared to one of the best sports movies ever made.

At times, A League of Their Own gets close to hitting all its targets, but it’s taken on too many burdens for one show to carry. It’s a shame, because it could’ve been truly great if it weren’t trying so hard to be good.