FX enjoys a certain programming freedom that comes with being on cable, and one of those liberties is being able to take gambles on shows that just couldn’t make the cut on networks. Originally, FX pushed the envelope with edgy dramas like The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me, but recently the channel has developed a formidable offbeat comedy lineup. It started with the slowly-developing, but surprisingly solid success of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was eventually joined in the 2009 season by the brilliant Louie, the soft-R rated spy animation Archer, and the fantasy football-centric sitcom The League.
The League debuted with a short six episode run, which was entirely written by showrunners Jeff and Jackie Schaffer, and as such, both enjoyed and suffered from densely constructed episodes arcs and the tightly composed season as a whole. The gamble of a sitcom centered on a fantasy football league was rewarded with modest ratings and mixed reviews, but while airing during the NFL season, validated the potential of scripted programming attractive to the lucrative football-loving demographic. A full 13 episode order gave The League room to pace the buildup towards the second season’s championship, and, like a cheap wine, the resulting aeration made the series much more palatable.
The most notable difference in the maturity of the second season was the regularity of episodes that utilize a label plot construct — when a certain type of behavior is identified early in an episode, and then observed for its comedic results throughout. The first season was at its best when it had these label themes, such as “Sunday at Ruxin’s”, where the league struggled to “respect the pause” and not look online for the results of a DVR-paused football game.
The Schaffers clearly identified this strength, as much of the second season uses this construct to great success. Some brilliant terms defined include “rosterbation” (v., the act of having extreme satisfaction from a successful fantasy draft), “deep Googler” (n., one who researches others extensively on the internet), “boyfriend chameleon” (n., a male who matches the interests of a female to stimulate compatibility), and a brilliant observation on sportscasters’ racial shorthand, to name a few.
The elephant in the room is how the series should handle the football – can a show both provide topical references for the clique audience, without isolating viewers who aren’t sports fans? The League does all it can to serve both sides, and in a way, it succeeds. However, due to television production schedules, there’s no way to write episodes in which real results of football games can be used in the plot, so the show instead takes a swing at potentially relevant players and teams, and leaves it at that. Unfortunate results of these pre-written football dialogues are some blatantly obvious inaccuracies, and the overuse of “Oh no, [Player] is out with an injury, who should I replace him with?” as a football-related stock plot element.
While it would be great to see actual results being taunted and cursed at by the characters, the consolation is a plethora of cameos by athletes and important football figures, whose sheer presence in a goofy sitcom is pleasing enough to the average football fan. The cameos are always a bit unpredictable, with Chad Ochocinco shows off his acting (and rapping) chops as the draft MC in the premiere, but the naturally animated Nick Kroll making wide receiver Joshua Cribbs look like a fish-out-of-water a few episodes later. However, even these cameos are explained, at times a bit obviously, for the football unfamiliar, with protagonists exclaiming the player’s name and position in their presence, as if temporarily becoming a reference footnote.
But when push comes to shove, The League is more about the dynamic characters than football topics, and the result is a very approachable sitcom. The two everyman characters (one married, one recently single), and their supporting eccentrics (pretentious lawyer, ugly plastic surgeon, and spacey stoner) make for a versatile ensemble, and the writing appears to astutely play off the actors’ strengths.
An unfortunate addition for the second season is the socially-reckless, obligation-in-law Raffi, who, at his best, reminds you of the people like him who you regularly try to avoid (“Give me your e-mail, do you like funny videos?”), and at his worst, ruins the scene with unbelievable lack of awareness (providing a friendly “Dick punch!”). Perhaps he’s a necessary evil, but Raffi ends up being far too invasive throughout the season, disrupting the flow of familiarity with alien.
The characters’ friendly banter is authentic and quite funny, and the DVD’s extended episodes include the full-length semi-improvisational scenes, which fit back into the original episodes so naturally, you won’t notice their presence. Also included in the special features are stand-alone versions of Taco’s in-episode viral YouTube videos, which at times felt forced, but on their own are fun to have without having to enter an episode to find.
Minor qualms aside, The League’s second season is what its rushed first season should have been, with an appropriate pacing opening up the series to its potential. Though it makes compromises in order to deliver its premise while satisfying the average audience, some of the scenes and many of its label themes are among the cleverest, self-conscious comedy writing on television. Most importantly, however, it’s a landmark show in its attentiveness to sport, technological, and popular cultures, which at their intersection resides both fantasy football and much of American culture.