By Richard Ades
There’s a moment in the 1992 film A League of Their Own when a ball gets away from a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A Black passerby palms the ball and throws it back with power and skill, after which both women smile at each other in recognition of their mutual love of the game.
The scene, lasting mere seconds, is the flick’s sole acknowledgement of the fact that some Black women played baseball back in 1943 and would have tried out for the then-new league if they’d been allowed to. But they weren’t, as the women’s league was just as segregated as its male counterpart was until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers some four years later.
Prime Video’s new A League of Their Own series, like its big-screen predecessor, revolves around the real-life women’s baseball teams that were formed to give fans something to watch while male players went off to fight World War II. But it’s hardly the same story. The series institutes changes designed to make up for elements of the film that now seem dated at best, insensitive at worst—starting with the short shrift it gives to 1940s racial discrimination.
The character at the center of much of the plot is still a married White woman who tries out for the league while her soldier-husband is serving overseas. Here, she’s named Carson Shaw and is played by Abbi Jacobson, who co-created the series with Will Graham. But playing just as big a role is Max (Chante Adams), a Black hair stylist who lives for baseball and is determined to join the league despite its color bar.
There are other differences, too. While the movie shows men such as an alcoholic coach (Tom Hanks) playing leadership roles in the women’s league, the series is a study in female empowerment. Even when Carson’s Illinois-based team is given a former pro player (Nick Offerman) as a coach, he shows little interest in fulfilling his duties. In this version of reality, there’s no male savior in sight.
The new series also delves into the possibility that some of the league’s players are more than just friends off the field. In fact, the challenges of being queer in the 1940s becomes a major theme.
The eight-episode first season surrounds both Carson and Max with a host of colorful friends and colleagues. Carson, of course, has her teammates, starting with the free-thinking Greta (D’Arcy Carden), who surprises her early on with a kiss that forces her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about herself. For her part, Max has a fearsome mother and a supportive father, but primarily she has best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo), a would-be artist who’s as devoted to the world of comic books as Max is to baseball.
Everyone, from the leads to supporting players and guest stars, is portrayed with as much style as a curve ball and as much gusto as a triple play. Even so, the series takes a while to hit its stride.
In the first episode, the dialogue is filled with enough raunchy language to undermine its sense of time and place. (It doesn’t help that a 1960s Janis Joplin anthem is heard over the closing credits.) Later, some of Max’s scenes take her so far from baseball that they seem part of another series altogether. Especially superfluous is an episode in which she and Clance search for crabs to serve at an important party.
Eventually, though, things begin to coalesce. We learn that Carson and Max are on similar life paths, in more ways than one, and we come to care about them and about those around them.
By the end of its first-season arc, A League of Their Own still seems like two related stories rather than a cohesive whole, but at least they’re interesting stories. Besides, maybe that’s the price the series pays for correcting one of its popular predecessor’s chief shortcomings.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
A League of Their Own premieres Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.