Expanding on the popularity of rotisserie baseball, fantasy football has become a financial juggernaut that sends countless guys (and girls) into crazed manias every Sunday. Unlike other fantasy sports, which reward managers willing to endure the long haul of daily games, football draws the crowds because of its simplicity. There are only 16 games, so the entire season can hinge on a single play. Football’s macho culture goes hand in hand with fans’ attempts to destroy their friends’ hopes each week. It also leads to some serious trash talking about each owner’s “players” and their success.
The League uses the fanatical atmosphere of a fantasy football league as the set-up for a juvenile comedy. While trying to gain an edge over their buddies, a small group of 30ish guys engage in all types of chicanery. Even when they mean well (a rare occasion), random chance conspires against them and their teams. Although several are married and have kids, these are still childish dudes who’ve barely progressed beyond adolescence. The league brings out the worst in them, which makes for some amusing situations.
The league participants include the arrogant defending champion Pete (Mark Duplass), naïve plastic surgeon Andre (Paul Scheer); enthusiastic but doomed Ruxin (Nick Kroll); family man Kevin (Steve Rannazzi), whose wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) actually runs the team; and his dim-witted younger brother Taco (Jon Lajole). This six-episode season loosely follows the time frame of the football season but focuses more on random events than the actual results. The premiere depicts the draft, but it spends only a brief time actually showing that event. It merely provides a backdrop for introducing the main characters.
This mini-season runs for a little more than two hours, but that’s just about the right amount of time to spend with these often-unlikable characters. The exceptions are Kevin and Jenny, who can act goofy but generally lack the nasty behavior of their pals. The jokes about her running his team get old very quickly, but their give-and-take relationship actually works. While raising their five-year-old daughter Ellie (Alina Foley), the couple remains neurotic but seems to be responsible parents. As the only regular female character, Aselton brings much-needed charm and a little balance to the male-centric cast.
Recognizing fantasy football’s connection to their fan base, the NFL has wisely placed their support behind this immature comedy. This leads to some entertaining cameos from celebrities like Terry Bradshaw, who Pete contacts for advice. One of the year’s best moments involves the Chargers’ Antonio Gates, who ends up in a hot tub next to Ruxin. After losing a match because of the star player’s exploits, the angry owner is ready to confront Gates for daring to play well.
The Gates incident brings to mind the plot constructions of Curb Your Enthusiasm, probably the nearest companion series to this show. Both make use of improvised dialogue and involve characters who are generally self-centered people. The League suffers in comparison because its vulgarity seems designed more to shock than to deliver inventive comedy. The jokes are typically straightforward and lack the extra style that makes Larry David’s buffoonery so enjoyable. There are some exceptions, but the humor shifts too often into obvious territory.
A saving grace is the enthusiasm of the actors, who valiantly try to eclipse the material. The social ineptitude and awful fashion sense of Andre works because Paul Scheer makes his naiveté believable. Mark Duplass has made his name in low-budget “mumblecore “films, and he finds the right low-key tone. Pete is a definite jerk who enjoys messing with his friends, but he’s so nonchalant that he’s almost likable. As the mindless but romantically successful Taco, Jon Lajole brings enough cluelessness to make the role believable. His inappropriate birthday song for Ellie in the premiere is just the start of a series of bizarre events.
This two-disc set includes a good amount of extra features, but there’s nothing offering behind-the-scenes insight. There are a few minutes of deleted scenes from each show and longer versions of Taco’s tunes. This set also includes extended versions of the episodes, but don’t be fooled. The new versions add just a few minutes at most and little exciting changes. The other inclusion is the pilot episode of the F/X animated series Archer, which ventures even further into low-brow territory than the featured show. I would have enjoyed a commentary or interview that offered some insights into the creative process.
The League is a divisive show that could immediately turn off a large portion of audiences for its subject matter and consistent vulgarity. I’m a fantasy football junkie, so this series is right up my alley. Watching these guys go overboard watching their players is an experience any fan can understand. The sex jokes and other inane actions are going to be a tougher sell for some.
When presented cleverly, even the crudest behavior can be entertaining, and this series has its moments. “Sunday at Ruxin’s” presents a situation that’s familiar for any fan — needing to watch the game while being entertained in a non-sports setting. This sequence and similar examples are done well and make the stories entertaining. However, the creative direction needs to avoid shifting towards lame, obvious gags.
The League’s second season began this September and will contain 13 episodes, more than double the first group. This longer run will require the creators to expand the show, and I hope it will lead to more consistent quality. The likable actors and neurotic situations give plenty of opportunities for terrific humor. If it builds on the first season’s framework and avoids the easy jokes, this inconsistent show could become an excellent comedy.