The broads are back. By "the broads," I mean the Rockford Peaches, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team that lodged itself in our pop culture consciousness in the 1992 Penny Marshall classic A League of Their Own. But I also mean a type of unruly woman who will be familiar to fans of Broad City's Abbi Jacobson, who stars in and co-created, with Will Graham, the winning new A League of Their Own series. These are the women whose friends are the great loves of their lives, and who don't want strangers to tell them to smile.
"A broad is a full person," Jacobson's Broad City co-creator, Ilana Glazer, once told The New Yorker. A League of Their Own, premiering Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video, has eight hours to do what the movie did in two, and it uses that time to expand on the things that make its characters full people. Jacobson anchors half of the story as Carson Shaw, a small-town catcher finding her voice in a women's baseball league during World War II. The other half of the show belongs to Chanté Adams as Max Chapman, a gifted pitcher who has to work five times as hard to get her shot. Through Max, who was inspired by three women who played for the Negro Leagues, the series gives voice to the Black athletes the movie nods at. And through a lot of its characters — more in every episode — the queerness that could only live in the movie as subtext becomes text.
Carson's awakening starts when she meets sophisticated first basewoman Greta Gill (a magnetic D'Arcy Carden) and her best friend Jo Deluca (Melanie Field). Greta and Jo, as a duo, are an endearing riff on Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell in the movie, in the same way Carson often echoes Geena Davis' Dottie, down to the soldier husband (Patrick J. Adams). But while the characters are familiar enough to wink at fans of the original, they're new enough creations to avoid stepping on the movie's toes; A League of Their Own remixes the Penny Marshall story rather than remaking it. As Jacobson pointed out in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the series also mixes in more real history — turns out the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League really was a gay haven.
The show's 1940s setting frees it up from a common problem. So many shows explore identity through labels, which can wind up crushing a big topic down until it sounds like online discourse. A League of Their Own bypasses all that talk about the right and wrong words to use — butch, femme, lesbian, bisexual — and lets its characters discover themselves by following what they like. Max's single-minded devotion to baseball, and her willingness to jump through every hoop to land on a team after the league won't even let her try out for the Peaches, is entertaining enough to carry her side of the show for the first half of the season. But as she connects with an estranged family member (Lea Robinson) and considers how she wants to present herself to the world, Max's desire for acceptance becomes the show's richest story.
A League of Their Own is not a queer utopia, at least not in the no-bigotry-allowed way that's become fashionable on TV. Queerness on the show is both a refuge and a danger. The league's "charm school," which trains the women to be well-behaved ladies, is retro-sexist in the movie; in the series, it's homophobic, and it reeks of a hatred that's entirely too alive in the present. But the show's refusal to sand down the edges only makes its joy more powerful. Rosie O'Donnell guests as Vi, the owner of a gay bar that helps some members of the team see each other in new light. By the time Greta addresses the Peaches, "All right, fruits," the double meaning lands so riotously well you'll want someone to high-five.
In its treatment of women's sports, A League of Their Own reminded me of GLOW, Netflix's glittery bruiser about women's wrestling in the 1980s, another show that understood the challenge of pulling off athletic feats while also performing femininity. Both shows treat stereotypes as costumes forced on people without their consent. Pitcher Lupe (a standout Roberta Colindrez) is Mexican, but the team's owners brand her as Spanish, reasoning that Spain "goes down easier." Lupe and the young Cuban Esti (Priscilla Delgado), the two women of color on the Peaches, could each use more screen time as they deal with being isolated from their teammates. So could Lupe's other half on the Peaches, Jess (Kelly McCormack), a taciturn Canadian who also chafes at the lipsticks and skirts being thrust upon them. But the show's character work — and its cast — is so confident and empathetic that by the end of the season, it's made a lot out of what initially seems like a little.
"Finding a team" is the show's obvious metaphor for finding community, queer and otherwise. The size of the ensemble sometimes limits A League of Their Own's follow-through, but the characters are written and played with enough personality to make that community feel alive. Max's comic book-loving friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) is a best friend but never a sidekick. And it's worth noting that Nick Offerman, as the team's coach, Dove Porter, doesn't steal the focus of the story the same way Tom Hanks' down-on-his-luck Jimmy Dugan does in the movie. The show uses Porter to load the bases and then neatly pushes him aside, leaving the home runs to the players.
Jacobson, Chanté Adams, and Carden carry the series easily, and if each feels like she's living in a slightly different world — Greta is a '40s bombshell who tells her crush to "close her peepers," while the easily flustered Carson says things like "f---ing epic" — that's part of the show's charm. The show, unlike the movie, is not a memory looked back on from the present; it is the present, little anachronisms crashing into each other so the characters' concerns never feel like relics of the past. Keeping viewers on their toes works for comedic effect, too, giving the series a dry sense of humor that cuts through its warmth.
A League of Their Own's full eight-episode first season is dropping at once, a release schedule that can be a letdown as more streaming shows embrace weekly drops. There's always the risk that a series watched all at once will leave the conversation just as quickly. But there is something to be said for the cumulative effect of spending a long afternoon with this show, like a day at the ballpark. Watch them swing for the fences.
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video
Who's in it: Abbi Jacobson, D'Arcy Carden, Chanté Adams, Melanie Field, Roberta Colindrez, Kate Berlant, Nick Offerman
Who's behind it: Abbi Jacobson, Will Graham
For fans of: GLOW, A League of Their Own (1992), Crying in baseball
How many episodes we watched: 8 out of 8