The FX half-hour sitcom The League is one of those shows that are compelling mainly because the next episode will surely be better than the last. A raunchy, testosterone-driven, politically incorrect comedy of the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia school, The League has seemingly everything going for it: a premise built around a fantasy-football subculture rife with obsessive nerdery and false braggadocio; a cast of skilled, likeable improvisers, including Mark Duplass, Nick Kroll, and Paul Scheer; and a cable outlet that places no restrictions on the weird, profane places its comedies can go. With all these elements in place, why are the six episodes of The League’s first season so maddeningly hit-or-miss? Are there kinks to be worked out, or is the show fundamentally flawed?
One major problem is how haphazardly the fantasy-football conceit gets worked into the show. Things like player valuations and trade packages are not the stuff of great comedy, but within those wonky details lie some funny possibilities, like the strange ways fantasy sports screw up fans’ rooting interests—you cheer for stats, not teams—or the in-your-face smack talk that goes on over number-crunching. As the league’s three-time champion, Duplass does much of the smack-talking, and carries around a oversized trophy festooned with amusing add-ons, but the show follows the action so loosely that it isn’t always clear what he or anyone else is bragging about. With some entertaining exceptions, like using the results of a children’s potato-sack race to determine draft order, fantasy sports serves more as a reason to bring the show’s beer-swilling chums together than as a rich comic vein in itself.
The other big problem: The League has trouble parsing the difference between smart-dumb and dumb-dumb when it comes to mocking/celebrating overgrown adolescence. For every amusing display of childish antics—Scheer is particularly good as a resident sucker who lets a little inadvertent success go to his head—the show falls back on misogynist gags that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bud Light commercial. The League seems determined to reach the hardcore football fans who watch those commercials, but it doesn’t have the insight or wit to pick them apart. Yet it’s perpetually two or three strong scenes away from turning the corner, and it’s possible, even likely, that the first season will be seen as the raw, bungling rookie who eventually grew into a star.
Key features: Among the highlights: deleted scenes from a few episodes, an extended version of the video for “Vaginal Hubris” (long story), and a collection of improvised alternate takes that reveal the cast’s considerable gifts.