This retelling of the based-on-a-true-story 1992 film opens out the narrative to encompass more social background, more characters, and (ironically) less baseball. One half of the team behind this, Will Graham, was the producer of Mozart in the Jungle (also on Amazon). Mozart was one of those sui generis shows (impossible to categorise except as itself), which Amazon does seem to specialise in. I enjoyed the first season a lot, but lost interest after that. It happens. Other hard-to-categorise shows on Amazon include Patriot and Casual.
The other half of the ALoTO team is also one of the central characters in the show, played by Abbi Jacobson. I’m more or less unfamiliar with her previous work, apart from being the voice of Princess Bean in the underwhelming Disenchantment on the underwhelming Netflix. Needless to say, she’s a stalwart of that particular kind of American comedy, which isn’t very funny.
She’s not very funny in ALoTO, either, it has to be said, portraying Carson Shaw, a character whose self effacement becomes an irritant — the kind of person who would drive you mad if you were her friend. This is fine, because that is exactly who she is supposed to be in the show. It’s just that, for me, this type of cringe comedy never works. I get Vietnam flashbacks to the unwatchable Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
Filling out the main ensemble are Chanté Adams (as Max, a black woman who is excluded from the League); D’Arcy Carden (not a robot); Gbemisola Ikumelo (Max’s best friend, who joins her as a production worker in the local munitions factory), and a whole team of others. There are Latina characters, but no Asians. I guess you have to watch Season 2 of The Terror to find them.
The 1992 ALoTO was a weird moment for me; I have a vivid memory of going to see it in the middle of an awkward and confusing relationship with a woman I’d met at university. I haven’t seen it since, perhaps not wanting the flashbacks, but it was great, wasn’t it? The incredible Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, some pop star. It told a vivid story with punched up colours and tightly edited baseball sequences.
For most of us outside America, the obsession with baseball is bewildering. A game as slow-paced and ridiculous as cricket, played over a perversely long season: no wonder it’s seen as a metaphor for life.
The counter argument is, why do we need a metaphor for life when we have, you know, life? But that question will never be answered.
Here the life metaphor of baseball is used as a vehicle for lots of ideas that, if they made it into the 1992 film, were barely there. So, yes, this show has thoughts about sexism – as in the original – but also misogyny, sexuality, racism, and gender identity. All of the hashtags! It’s a lot, a lot for one show to carry, but carry them it does, even if it does sometimes have to awkwardly juggle.
As such, it’s really representative of a cultural moment, and I do wonder how it will age. I’m a big fan of colourblind casting, and of including people of colour in historical narratives, even if some people think it would be “more authentic” to have all the cast white. The counter argument is always that there probably were more people of colour around in the past than film and television would have you believe. In the same way, there were a lot more women around in the past than Hollywood would have you believe: a subject Geena Davis herself has thoughts about. And as older readers will know, I am very much not a fan of “boys’ adventure” narratives that manage to exclude 50% of the population.
Realism and authenticity are very much overrated for some reason, and I’d have been fine with a version of this show that included Max (and other black players) as members of the team, notwithstanding the screams of the authenticity crowd. On the other hand, including black characters would be another way of whitewashing history, I suppose. My argument being, fuck history. If you always cleave to history, you run the risk of only ever allowing black actors to portray victims of discrimination and prejudice. Whereas in my fantasy version of not-history, they would get to be a ball player, and participate in plotlines about getting the yips. But instead we have the really quite upsetting story of Max, who is desperate to play, and whose struggles to be included – even if it is only on the local factory team – form half of the plotline. Because the racism here is not just about playing baseball: it pervades everything, from getting served in a shop to being allowed to apply for a job. I think the show does a really good job of holding up a mirror to American society. And to be fair to the writers, Max gets to double up as a woman who prefers women.
But it is a lot, because then you end up with one character representing three of the hashtag themes, as it were; and it’s an odd mix. Because on the one hand, there are white women breaking out of their constricted lives and being given a chance to do something they love and are good at – which is joy. But on the other there are black women suffering a thousand indignities every day of their lives.
Which is before we get to the themes of sexual and gender identity, with women taking huge risks to explore forbidden love, trying to find a safe space to just be themselves.
It is a lot, but the writers, on the whole, have handled it well, and have still made it a fun and enjoyable watch.