The streaming reboot to Penny Marshall’s beloved 1992 film A League of Their Own is both the same and vastly different.
It is that special sauce of reboots in which it keeps the vibe of the original alive while updating it for a modern audience – and it actually has something to say.
That’s a hard balance to straddle and most reboots and revivals fall over because they tilt too much in either direction, and usually by clinging on to something that no longer works outside of its original context.
A League of Their Ownthe new version, is a sharp and delightful series, which takes the defiant spirit of Marshall’s film and elevates it by expanding its universe to tell more inclusive stories about sexuality and race in 1940s America.
Set during World War II, the series is about the establishment of the women’s professional baseball league while the men are serving in Europe and the Pacific. The league is the brainchild of the confectionary tycoon who needs to fill the stands of his stadiums.
Recruited from around the US and Canada, the women are told to fit into a standard of what constitutes being a lady while copping horrendous sexism from all quarters, including their own supposed fans.
In those elements, the TV reboot and the movie version are similar. They share the same DNA and hit many of the same story beats.
But when it comes to the characters, the series created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham sprints away from the confines of the original film.
Rosie O’Donnell, who played Doris Murphy in the 1992 movie, famously said she played her character as a lesbian, even when Marshall explicitly told her she wasn’t. Jacobson and Graham doesn’t just correct the exclusion of queer characters from the story but made them the stars.
There are two leads in the 2022 series, Jacobson as Carson Shaw and Chante Adams as Max Chapman – two characters whose narratives could not have been centered 30 years ago.
Carson is a married woman who joins the team because she wants to play ball. Ella’s husband Charlie (J. Patrick Adams) is serving overseas so she sees this as her shot from her. After meeting the vivacious Greta (D’Arcy Carden), a seductive dance reveals that Carson’s desires for her are more than just athletic success.
Carson’s discovery of her queerness is both wonderful and full of risk. The judgment and repression of the era is a constant threat.
What’s great about Carson’s side of A League of Their Own is that it’s not a case of, “And here’s the token queer girl, we’ve checked that box”, but a commitment to exploring many queer characters and their experiences.
And it’s not just about their sexualities. It’s one facet of each character, they’re not defined by it. They really also, really love baseball. The series intersects all the different aspects of their lives and ambitions for fuller portrayals.
For her part, O’Donnell returns for an emotionally resonant guest role in a later episode in the season in which she plays the owner of an underground gay bar.
The other story strand follows Max, a young black woman who is denied even a tryout despite her indisputably superior throw.
Max is champing to play baseball however she can and contrives a job at the screw factory just for a chance to be considered for the company team. Max’s raw and unappealing appetite for her butts up against the “realities” of the day, which includes her mother for her who expects her to take over the family business. That her mother de ella boasts the first black-owned business in the neighbors does n’t mean nothing.
Max is a richly textured character whose experience intersects race and queerness, contextualized in a vividly drawn side of Rockford that takes place in black spaces.
If there’s any quibble, it’s that the series takes its time to weave the two plotlines together and sometimes the intercutting between the two can drag the pace.
It’s a small thing in a series that is pumped full of fantastic performances from Jacobson, Adams and Carden but also the likes of Dale Dickey as the team’s empathetic chaperone, Gbemisola Ikumelo as Max’s friend Clance, and Rockford Peaches Melanie Field, Kate Berlant, Molly Ephraim, Kelly McCormack and Roberta Colindrez.
Marshall’s film will always have a place in cinema history – and deservedly so – but it’s stirring that a movie which couldn’t include other stories is now the launchpad for a fresh, terrific and inclusive series. It really is a league of their own.
A League of Their Own is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video