Note: The following A League of Their Own review covers the full first season but does not include major spoilers for the series. Autostraddle’s episodic recaps of the series start on Friday, August 12.
Here at Autostraddle, we’ve been writing about A League of Their Own for over a decade. I don’t subscribe to the myth of a monolithic queer culture, but it’s hard to deny the impact of the 1992 movie on my queer community. Every dyke I know over the age of 25 feels something about this movie. It had baby gays of the 80s and 90s in a chokehold. And when it was announced Abbi Jacobson would be rebooting the beloved film as a series, my phone lit up.
While I’m not as cynical as some, I am often ambivalent toward the reboot boom, which can’t even be called a boom since we’ve been in it for years. I’m dubious of nostalgia. Nostalgia is powerful, alluring. It can feel really fucking good when a movie or television show ticks certain boxes that evoke a different time in your life, that remind you of something you love. But it can also be a trick — or a trap. The latest Scream movie baked nostalgia and passionate fan culture into its premise, but to me, it represented everything wrong with using nostalgia as the main fuel your narrative runs on. Nostalgic art shouldn’t just replicate or even just comment on the past. It should also move things forward, balance that nostalgia with something more firm and easy to grasp. Because nostalgia is a heady, wispy, fuzzy feeling, a strong high that passes quickly.
A League of Their Own — created by Jacobson and Will Graham for Prime Video — exemplifies exactly how to utilize nostalgia to make good art. This is how you reboot. Because it isn’t just a reboot; it’s a reconfiguration and reconsideration, too. There are enough traces from the original Penny Marshall film — including explicit references and homages and a very important cameo — to tickle that fuzzy feeling of nostalgia for the diehard fans. The series effectively replicates a lot of the same things that made the original fun and lasting.
But it crucially does new things, too. It expands the game.
Still set in the 1940s and spotlighting the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the A League of Their Own series explicitly explores the lived queer experiences of players at the time and also digs into the racism of the league. And it doesn’t make the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and its players the only focal point of the narrative.
There are, in fact, two main narratives here, and they’re given equal footing. In one, there’s Carson Shaw (Jacobson) and the Rockford Peaches. During tryouts in the first episode, Max Chapman (Chanté Adams) arrives with her best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo) for support, but they’re promptly turned away because they’re Black. Here, the story becomes bifurcated.
But A League of Their Own doesn’t feel like two separate shows unspooling at once. These narratives are like the offense and the defense, both essential components of the same game. The two storylines often touch, sometimes in more abstract thematic ways, and sometimes more explicitly. The Rockford Peaches don’t let Max in, but A League of Their Own ensures she takes up space in the narrative, her own wins and losses playing out alongside the team’s.
Carson and Max’s arcs are connected but also distinct. Carson, who has a husband abroad fighting the war, is just on the precipice of blowing up her life to get the things she wants. It’s fitting that when we first meet her, she’s running toward something. With almost feral determination. In the league, she’s saddled with the reputation of the goody farm girl (even though she has never lived on a farm, but the other players are correct in that this is the energy she’s giving). Max wants a team to play on, for someone to tell her finally that she’s good enough. She confronts expectations and assumptions, too. Both of these characters are figuring out who they are and what they want, running up against constant pressures to be and do something else.
The familial and friendship dynamics Max’s arc bring to the table make for some of the finest storytelling on the show, which is of course about so much more than baseball. Max desperately wants a team of her own, but she’s stymied — not just by sexism like the Rockford Peaches are — but by racism, too. She confronts obstacles within her own family and community as well, eventually seeking guidance from and connection with a long-estranged family member. Her best friendship with Clance — who is a delightful superhero-obsessed comics nerd and illustrator — shines and feels like a well established dynamic the second we meet them. Max and Carson also develop a connection, and Jacobson and Adams are impeccable scene partners, both so good at simultaneously harnessing the humor and more dramatic tones of the series.
Within the Rockford Peaches, various dynamics and tensions play out at an interpersonal level among the teammates, often having deeper underpinnings rooted in race, sexuality, gender, and financial status. Greta (D’Arcy Carden) and Jo De Luca (Melanie Field) are best friends who have developed a code for taking care of themselves and each other. They’re the only pre-established friendship coming into the Peaches team house, and their personal history together is immediately rendered meaningful and complex. There’s something both lovely and sad about their escapades, always together but often running away from bad situations, only able to really be themselves behind closed doors.
Newly formed relationships take on detail and weight, too, sometimes harder-to-define than just friendship or courtship or rivalry, blurring lines and moving between categories depending on the social context and various pressures. A League of Their Own has many kinds of love stories at its core, and its character and relationship development as it pertains to friendship is just as immersive and thrilling as its (VERY HOT) romances.
Racism doesn’t just keep some players out of the Peaches; it affects the existing Latinx players on the team, too. Lupe (Roberta Colindrez) is affixed with a nickname she never chose and constantly perceived through stereotypes. Esti (Priscilla Delgado), a very young girl who left Cuba to play on the team, doesn’t speak much English, and she’s often excluded from team activities as a result. She and Lupe have a complicated relationship, often thrown together since they’re the only Latinx women on the team, but Lupe doesn’t want to mother her, and resentment festers. When Lupe and Carson end up embroiled in conflict, the ways they’re each treated diverge greatly. Being the good, white farm girl has its obvious advantages.
I’m burying the lede here though, aren’t I? It’s very likely you’re here reading this review on Autostraddle dot com with a question on your heart: How gay is it? Well, let me put it this way: Just a couple episodes in, I lost count of how many times I’d said out loud this is so gay.
In addition to acknowledging the racism of the league, A League of Their Own also expands its narrative to include the historical realities of queer players. Thirty years after the original, this story finally gets to be as gay as it should be. Whatever queer subtext pinged for the baby gays of the 80s and 90s moves into bold fucking text here. There are so many queer characters. Almost everyone! Is queer!
And it’s not just the sheer number of queer characters but also the great space and weight given to queerness within just about every single plotline and subplot of this new A League of Their Own that truly makes up for the lack of explicitly gay content in the original movie — and then some. This is a series that kicks things off with a homoerotic haircut scene. One episode ends with a gay makeout that even I, someone who assumes everyone is queer until proven otherwise, was surprised by.
There are queer romances and sex scenes throughout, but there are also stories built on queer friendship and community-building. The queer characters all feel connected in their common quests for survival but also distinct from each other in their own relationships to their sexualities, the risks they’re willing to take, the ways they move through the world. It’s easier for the more femme characters to get away with certain behaviors than it is for more butch characters. The women with husbands can wave their wedding rings in the face of accusations.
Like the original movie, all the baseball players here face sexism and gendered expectations, forced to wear skirts on the field and perform a certain femininity. But this all applies doubly so for the queer characters, who aren’t just risking their baseball careers by stepping outside of these gender roles but their whole lives. In a small act of resistance, one character willingly incurs regular fines for wearing pants in public, and in the end, she finds an ally in an unexpected place. Again, queerness seeps so deeply into this story that it cannot be extracted, cannot be ignored. Homophobia impacts the ways the characters occupy the world outside of the baseball diamond, but it also impacts the ways they play the actual game. One character chokes on the field as a direct result of hearing something homophobic from people she cares about. Queerness touches so much in this story, and so does violent opposition to it, a push and pull exemplified best in the season’s exploration of underground queer bar/nightlife scenes.
Queer spaces here bring simultaneous joy and danger. A League of Their Own deftly threads the needle between spinning a feel-good show while also portraying some of the harsh realities of racism, homophobia, and sexism of its setting. It softens the edges of some of those violences, but without downplaying the severity of them or creating some sort of false utopia that would render the series vapid and out-of-touch. Yes, the series has an overall feel-good warmth, but it’s also real and grounded and has big, emotional moments that elevate the stakes for what plays out on the field. It’s balanced and nuanced in its tone and scope. Tenderness, care, and friendship sit inside even some of its most difficult moments.
Right off the bat, A League of Their Own has a commanding sense of self. I think it’ll satisfy longtime fans and also create new ones. The ensemble is one of the strongest television casts in recent memory, good all the way down the roster. Jacobson and Carden are breathtaking scene partners, and I won’t call this Carden’s breakout role since I think plenty of people fell in love with her on The Good Place, but goddamn this is a role she was born to play, one she embodies so perfectly it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in it. And that can be said of several members of this cast — Field fits Jo like a glove; Adams makes Max so charming even at her messiest; Jacobson might finally no longer be associated first and foremost with Broad City. Everyone is a goddamn heartthrob.
The actors shine on individual levels, but as with all great sport stories, they’re best together. Adams and Ikumelo are an incredible comedy duo, but they also land the more dramatic moments in Max and Clance’s friendship, too. The series is full of memorable two-hander scenes, balancing its bustling ensemble moments with intimate scenes that get at the heart of the series. But I love those bustling ensemble moments, too. Sweeping tracking shots establish a sense of chaotic camaraderie between the women, and the actual baseball playing scenes are both exciting (and, let’s be real, SEXY).
The writing is confident and backed by research: Jacobson and Graham spent a significant amount of time interviewing living players from the time and also brought on consultants like Maybelle Blair, who came out at 95-years-old during the show’s press tour. While the dialogue and humor has modern sensibilities, giving it an anachronistic feel in a way I absolutely did not mind, it feels ultimately situated in its time and place. The characters have to fight so hard for the things they want — from playing baseball to kissing the girls they want to kiss. And it’s easy to root for them.
It’s next to impossible to craft an ending for a sports narrative that isn’t predictable. Sports stories tend to fit into neat boxes, the most common (and satisfying) being the tale of the underdog triumphing. It’s usually easy to read the movements leading up to the big game. And yet, I found myself surprised by the ending of A League of Their Own ’s first season — on the field and off it. Not necessarily in the plot beats but in the details. In fact, the show surprised me throughout — especially in just how much queer experience and queer identity matter to its stories.
If you’re going to reboot a beloved classic, do it like this. Tip your hat to the fans but then surprise them. Make the queer subtext into bold text. Don’t ignore race and racism. Lean into the messy parts of the story. Create Black and brown characters who are fully dimensional, who don’t feel like an afterthought or a cheap play for diversity points. Tell many stories at once instead of just one straightforward narrative. Open up the world, try a new play.
All eight episodes of the first season drop on Friday, August 12, but I recommend savoring them. I wish the show had been on a weekly release schedule rather than a streamer dump, because it’s really excellently paced and plotted, and I think those strengths would have hit even harder with a slower rollout. If you want to watch the series in alignment with Autostraddle’s recap coverage, the episodic recaps start with the premiere episode on August 12 and will publish once a day every morning from then until the final recap goes up on the 19th. Our Editor in Chief Carmen Phillips and senior editor Heather Hogan are tag-teaming the recaps, and you’re going to want to tune in for these heavy hitters. I went as broad as possible with this review, because I genuinely didn’t want to spoil anything major or even some of the specific nuances to the series. But Carmen and Heather will be going deeper, and I can’t wait to obsessively follow along. I hope you will, too.