There might be no crying in baseball, but I’m sure that I wasn’t alone in shedding a few happy tears while watching Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson’s lovingly-crafted new series A League of Their Own on Prime Video. The adaptation of Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie is a home run, capturing much of the feel-good spirit and charm of the original while delving deeper into the women’s lives to create a beautifully queer comedy drama.
It’s 1943, and we meet Carson Shaw (Jacobson) as she’s frantically trying to catch a train from her rural Idaho hometown to Chicago. She’s heading there to take part in the tryouts for the Rockford Peaches, a team that will form part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) that’s being established while many of the nation’s men remain overseas during the Second World War. A little overwhelmed by the bustling big city streets, Carson is relieved to run into fellow Peaches hopefuls Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden) and Jo De Luca (Melanie Field) who let her tag along with them to find the stadium together. As they set foot on the grass and take in a field full of baseball playing young women, they’re overcome with a mix exhilaration and trepidation, with Carson visibly moved.
During the tryouts, a young Black woman, Max Chapman (Chanté Adams), accompanied by her best friend Clance Morgan (a spirited and funny Gbemisola Ikumelo), arrives in the hopes that she’ll be given a chance to prove what a gifted pitcher she is. Informed that the league is “All-American” and will not allow any coloured players, Max is summarily turned away, but not before she throws a ball into the stand to let them know the skills that they’re missing out on. It’s a move that catches Carson’s eye in a moment that echoes Dottie (Geena Davis) catching a ball that a young Black woman throws back at her in the movie. Whereas in the film, outside of that extremely brief but memorable moment, we don’t get to know anything about that character, in this series we follow Max as she returns home to Rockford, Illinois. Throughout the season, Max’s story of determination to be a pitcher plays out in parallel alongside Carson’s experience on the Peaches. Without it feeling too contrived, the two women occasionally cross paths and ultimately forge a friendship, but Max’s narrative isn’t told through the lens of the white characters she interacts with, but rather from her own point of view as the specific struggles she’s up against and the sacrifices she makes to even demonstrate her baseball skills, let alone play, are illuminated.
Veteran queer filmmaker and prolific television director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader), who helms the first three episodes, keeps things moving with a peppy energy that matches the exuberance that the women feel to have been selected, while giving all the emotional beats room to breathe. Babbit, along with Graham and Jacobson who co-wrote the opening episode, deftly set things up for the season ahead as we’re introduced to a host of multifaceted characters. The house that the Peaches share and spend much of their downtime in is a central location in the series, and a great place for the writers to explore the dynamics between this eclectic group, as they are watched over by their strict live-in chaperone Sergeant Beverly (Dale Dickey). Dickey is wonderful in the role, bringing just the right blend of steely toughness with a strong undercurrent of paternal warmth to Beverly.
Although Carson is married, with her husband away serving his country in Europe, and Greta keeps up appearances by leaving bars with men and talking about affairs with the likes of The Wizard of Oz star Jerry Maren, there’s palpable chemistry between the two women from the start and before long they’re involved a sweeping, and adorably sweet, romance. Greta has had experience with women in the past, but this is all new to Carson, and in an era when “sexual inverts” were discriminated against, criminalized and classified as mentally ill, her queer awakening is drawn with nuance and unsurprisingly tinged with some internalized homophobia. Forced to keep their relationship secret, they steal time together whenever they can and are thrilled to find a disused old car covered in sheets in the house’s garage which provides some privacy, but they still remain on edge that someone might find out about them.
The most openly homophobic character on the team is also the kookiest, Carson’s roommate Shirley (Kate Berlant), who believes that if they have one queer in their midst then they all might “catch it”. After countless movies and shows where a queer character is in a supporting role just for laughs (often at their expense), it’s an added delight to have lesbians in at the centre while the funny homophobe is on the sidelines. Despite the very real and troubling threat of exposure and public vilification in the newspapers during this period for the queer characters, Shirley’s homophobia is relatively benign and rooted in ignorance rather than hatred, while Berlant is frequently hilarious with her dry, deadpan delivery.
Meanwhile in Rockford, as Max remains hell-bent on playing baseball, we discover that she’s involved in a passionate sexual relationship with a married woman whom she makes eyes at during church services and meets after hours in her mother Toni’s (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) hair salon. As the season progresses, Max discovers that she’s not the only LGBTQ member of her family. Curious about why her mother became estranged from her own sister Bertie, and overhearing hushed talk between her parents about fears that she might also be “an invert”, Max pays Bertie an unannounced visit. She finds the dashingly handsome, impeccably dressed, gender nonconforming Bertie (a captivating Lea Robinson) thriving in his life, happily partnered with the luminously beautiful Gracie (Patrice Covington), who works with Max at the munitions factory where she’s taken a job in the hopes of playing on their baseball team.
Given the times, and fears about embracing her own queerness, Max initially struggles to accept her uncle, but they meaningfully connect in a delicate, poignant scene where he gives his niece a short hair cut. Then later, she nervously takes him up on an invitation to his house party. In a stunning sequence in the sixth episode, directed by Graham, that’s one of the highlights of the season, the action cuts between Bertie’s home filled with the effervescence of Black queer joy celebrated in private, and the underground queer bar where some of the Peaches are drinking and dancing in Chicago.
That episode opens with the Peaches on a cinema trip to see The Wizard of Oz, leading to some fun nods to the movie including a touching homage as Carson walks out of the darkness into the technicolor of her first queer bar (though she doesn’t quite realize she’s not in Kansas anymore until it’s pointed out to her). That the butch lesbian owner of the bar, Vi, is played by a queer icon and one of the stars of the original League movie, Rosie O’Donnell, is ruby frosting on the rainbow cake. Clance—a comic book aficionado and talented illustrator—isn’t an Oz fan, and encourages Max to leave the showing of the film that they’re at early. She has some insightful colonialism readings of the film, and draws a striking image of “evil Dorothy”.
It’s powerful to see these kinds of queer stories, usually only found in niche historical documentaries, told with so much care and brought vividly to life with such fine attention to detail in a major TV production. Graham and Jacobson believe our stories are worth telling without confining them to an “LGBTQ series”; they’re not just empowering for our community, but make for compelling human tales of endurance and defiance that paint rich, detailed portraits of all aspects of these characters’ lives. The exquisite production and costume design help to immerse us in the 40s without fetishizing or pulling focus, while there’s some impactful use of intentionally anachronistic music choices on the soundtrack like Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Heart’s Barracuda during a pivotal match. Some of the dialogue, especially Clance’s, incorporates some turns of phrase that sound particularly modern, but instead of detracting from the storytelling, it helps keep things feeling fresh, natural and immediate, rather than a dusty historical piece.
Casting directors Felicia Fasano and Donna Belajac have assembled a formidably talented team, and each member of the cast really delivers and deserves praise, but I’ll highlight just a few. Abbi Jacobson is utterly absorbing as Carson, making her uncertainty intriguing as she begins to grasp the strengths that she has away from her life as a wife. As well as bringing a lot humour to the role, there’s a rawness to her emotional vulnerability as Carson falls hard for Greta that makes her completely endearing. Chanté Adams gives a layered tour-de-force as Max and we can feel her frustration and laser focused resolve bubbling throughout. Even when she briefly gives up on her baseball dreams, she exudes that fiery fighting spirit to succeed. D’Arcy Carden dazzles as Greta, bringing an invigorating joie de vivre combined with a heartbreaking depth to a young woman who has everything together on the surface.
When it comes to the baseball scenes, I always felt invested in the matches and there’s enough tension to keep things interesting, with some nice character-driven moments in there. Essentially, we care about the game because these women are passionate about it, something that’s always vital in a drama centred around sport. Graham and Jacobson have created something really special here. Without ignoring the harsh realities of homophobia and the dangers of living openly, they offer us queer love stories, where so often we’ve been erased, or given tales of isolation and despair. At a time when the forces against us are in plain sight, A League of Their Own is a real tonic. A tribute to our queer ancestors and a fun, uplifting show. She’s a peach.
By James Kleinmann
All eight episodes of A League of Their Own are streaming now on Prime Video.