I have to imagine when The League was pitched to network executives, it garnered a response that sounded something like this: “a comedy about a fantasy football league? That’s so stupid it might work!” As those of us who play fantasy football well know, it’s full of situations ripe with stupidity and comedy. But – and it’s a big one – not all of us play fantasy football, leading to an initial concern about The League – would it be too “inside baseball” for a general audience? This isn’t the case, as The League mostly plays its characters for laughs outside of fantasy football – which is mostly good.
In fact, “mostly good” might be the best way to describe The League. It goes for big, sweeping, outrageous comedy at times and relies on subtler callbacks at others. It’s just smart enough to get away with some of the dumb things it does. But The League is at its best when staying somewhat grounded – a fact the show sometimes misses in order to hit the wackiest comedic beat possible.
The League revolves around a group of five friends in a fantasy football league (six, from Season Two on) who live just north of Chicago. They are Pete (Mark Duplass), a jovial slacker who’s the three-team league champion, Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), the uptight league commissioner whose wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) basically runs his team, Ruxin (Nick Kroll), a bitingly sarcastic and harsh lawyer, Andre (Paul Scheer), a doctor who’s typically the butt of everyone’s jokes, and Taco (Jon Lajoie), an unemployed stoner who hooks up with women on a nightly basis. It’s best to not say anything more about Taco, because he’s one of the strangest, most surprising characters on TV – which is mostly good. Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas), Ruxin’s outrageously filthy brother-in-law, also becomes an integral part of the show beginning in Season Two.
Fantasy football obviously serves as the backbone of The League, though it’s not the whole story. It’s apparent from the pilot episode that the league itself is going to lead to some outrageously funny moments that aren’t directly football-related. That’s pretty clear when Kevin decides to determine the draft order by a children’s sack race at his daughter’s birthday party, placing a number from 1-8 on each of the sacks. (I should note here that there are two other owners in the league, out-of-towners who are rarely ever seen or heard from.) It’s a ridiculous moment with just enough mildly realistic potential to be hilarious.
And therein lies The League‘s major problem – it jumps too far off the deep end to carry out all of its humor. Witness, just one year later, the way that Season Two’s draft order is decided – with a race to see who can first make it through airport security. None of the characters are arrested or truly interfered with, which might have flown in, oh, 1970. But not 2010. (Granted, it does lead to a killer line from race winner Pete, being whisked away by airport security – “you can search me all you want, but all you’re gonna find is Tennessee running back Chris Johnson!”) And that’s not even the most remotely implausible scenario on the show. One character gets a random stroke, one lights his crotch on fire and runs OUT of the bathroom, one lies to his wife about a former dead spouse – and then there’s everything that Taco does in Season Three. Yep, things get a wee bit out of hand.
The shame in that is that The League has such talented improvisational actors that it doesn’t need to aim for the most outrageous moments possible. (Special notice to Mantzoukas, though, whose Rafi is so outrageously and vile that he nails every moment.) The show, from former Seinfeld writer and Curb Your Enthusiasm director Jeff Schaffer, is semi-improvised. The characters have a beginning and ending target for every scene, and in between there, it seems to be open season. I won’t spoil any of the situations, but this is a group of guys (and one gal) that could find a way to make anything funny. With a wider audience, the show would have definitely brought a few new phrases into the cultural zeitgeist.
And while it’s not completely widespread, the fantasy football stuff, when it happens, is perfect, as those of us who play fantasy football know well. Everyone’s league has a Taco. Everyone’s league has a Pete. Everyone’s league has a Kevin. Someone’s always blindly devoted to the projections, someone’s always looking for the insider scoop that nobody else gets and someone’s always been burned by Mike Tolbert (The Vulture) in the past. Frankly, you wish the show would do more of the fantasy football-type stuff.
There’s a lot to recommend about The League, and I certainly do recommend it. It just has the tools in place for a bit better of a series than it is. But I’ve heard good words about Season Four, which I’m starting today, so maybe there’s hope for a little more of a grounded series.