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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
In 1992, the professional women's baseball team the Rockford Peaches was immortalized in the box office hit "A League Of Their Own." Thirty years later, they're back in a new Amazon series of the same name, co-created by and starring "Broad City" alum Abbi Jacobson. This time around, crying in baseball is the least of their worries. The show explores queer themes and racial segregation via a different set of fictionalized characters. It's a fresh take that both pays homage and stands on its own. I'm Linda Holmes, and we're talking about the new series "A League Of Their Own" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Joining me today is writer Katie Presley. Welcome back, Katie.
KATIE PRESLEY: Howdy.
HOLMES: And also joining us is Kristen Meinzer. She is the co-host of the podcast "Movie Therapy With Rafer & Kristen." She's also the co-author of "How to Be Fine." Welcome back, Kristen.
KRISTEN MEINZER: Thanks so much for having me back.
HOLMES: And rounding out the panel is Soraya Nadia McDonald, senior culture critic for Andscape. Welcome back, Soraya.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Thank you so much.
HOLMES: The series "A League Of Their Own" is a fictionalized account of the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943. The inaugural Rockford Peaches team includes Abbi Jacobson as Carson, the catcher whose husband is away at war, D'Arcy Carden as the spunky and confident Greta, and Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, a tough but talented pitcher. Amid setbacks and conflicts, the teammates learn to gel together on the field, and a few find communion in underground safe spaces for queer locals off the field. The show also focuses on Max, a young Black pitcher played by Chante Adams. She's turned away from tryouts for the Rockford Peaches because of the rules around segregation, though she and Carson eventually develop a kinship over the course of the season. Max tries to find ways to play baseball in her own community with the moral support of her best friend Clance, played by Gbemisola Ikumelo. And Saidah Arrika Ekulona plays Toni, Max's mom, with whom she has a strained relationship.
The series was created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham and is streaming now on Prime Video. We should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and also distributes certain NPR content. We should also note that we have seen all the episodes, so we're not planning big spoilers. But if you want to be completely unspoiled, maybe watch first and listen after.
Kristen, I want to start with you. How did this series strike you?
MEINZER: Well, first and foremost, I just have to say it looks beautiful - the costumes, the hair, the makeup, the sound design - actually using music from that era. And also, the acting is so much better than the movie. I know we're here to talk about the show, and we might not want to compare and contrast too much, but it's hard not to. There's a lot of bad acting in the original movie. But everybody here, for the most part, I think, is a better actor. I also have to point out that everybody looks like they're actually playing baseball on this TV show. You actually see how strong and fierce these players are, which, back in the old movie, it kind of looked like Geena Davis may as well have just been dusting 'cause that's how much her body was moving when she hit a ball. So it is so fun to watch these athletes actually be athletes. They look terrific. They act terrific. And I was cheering for them from the get go.
But I do have to say, I don't think it's a perfect show. I think they try to do too much in particular and not enough with our Black character on this TV show. She is supposed to stand in for so many different things, and she also is kind of in that position of, meanwhile, here's what a Black person was doing. So I was glad she was there, but I was unhappy with how her character was executed.
HOLMES: Interesting. Katie, how about you?
PRESLEY: I love all of your points, Kristen, and completely agree with them. I agree there has to be some reckoning with the movie, especially the first episode. I just caught myself - and I think you're supposed to catch yourself doing this - trying to find characters from the movie in the show because there are some kind of almost note-for-note - basically impressions. You know, I'm thinking especially of the character Jo De Luca, played by Melanie Field, who is very clearly the Rosie O'Donnell character. I thought of it as I was watching as the show saying, did you watch the movie? You'll probably like this. Like, stay tuned - and then moving into the deep stories of these characters.
My experience watching it was upsy-downsy (ph). As Kristen mentioned, the acting is phenomenal, so there were no blips there. I am wondering if part of what felt upsy-downsy to me is the fact that many writers worked on the show. I came into this purposefully reading very little, so I did not know that it was going to be very heavily focused on queer issues. So I had the emotional roller coaster of thinking, yay, everybody's gay. So overall, I absolutely enjoyed watching the show, love that the AAGPBL is accessible to a new audience, to a younger audience, more contemporary audience. But there were issues that my eyebrow raised at several points during watching.
HOLMES: Interesting, interesting. Soraya, what did you think?
MCDONALD: I really gobbled this series up so quickly, and I was really surprised. The film itself was probably part of my, like, childhood feminist awakening. And I agree with both of you that it does have its flaws, and it feels really ambitious, right? It's really trying to color in all of these characters and not leave anyone behind. You know, it gets a little choppy, particularly, I think, with Max's storyline. At the same time, I feel like this show has just sort of solidified my preference for media about baseball as opposed to watching baseball itself.
MCDONALD: One of my favorite movies is "Bull Durham." And yet I also, in a previous life, was a sportswriter and spent a summer covering minor league baseball. And I have to say "Bull Durham" is much better.
MCDONALD: But there there's so many things I like about this show. One is just this off-the-walls chemistry between Abbi Jacobson and D'Arcy Carden. But also, part of it was just such a pleasure for me to see how Abbi has evolved in her writing and her thinking since "Broad City." You know, I mean, "Broad City" was very much a sort of, like, broke in New York in your 20s and, like, making things work show, you know, a bit - like, really funny. And I think one of the things we see, you know, with Carson is just how different someone can be even if they're relatively maybe the same age because, you know, she's married, right? Like, her husband has, like, gone to war. There are all these, like, very serious concerns that are happening with everyone. And so it's a different look at womanhood and American womanhood, obviously. But then it's also sort of set against this, I mean, I suppose you could say anachronistic language. But for the most part, I was just very charmed by it.
HOLMES: Yeah. I was, too. I was interested in Kristen's kind of reflection on the idea of it as kind of the sort of meanwhile element of Max's story because that was actually not my reaction to it. I actually thought it was very intentional that Max, who does have a fully - I think a fully realized life with her family - and I think those performances are excellent. Her parents - I think that Clance is maybe my favorite person in this whole series. She's so much fun to watch. And that character...
HOLMES: ...Has her own story about how to make peace with her life and what's expected of her and who she wants to be. And I think to me, it was intentional that they kind of - they are able to recognize the Peaches and the league as both an opportunity for some people and yet another exclusionary institution for other people. And I admired the way that I think they don't try to resolve that - right? - because the whole time I'm watching this thinking, like, are they going to somehow magically integrate the Peaches? - because that seems like the thing that you might expect them to do. Or are they going to have something that kind of sets that tension aside? But they don't have anything that sets that tension aside. Those stories live alongside each other.
And you see the entire time how Carson may feel legitimately, you know, that there are limitations on her freedoms because she doesn't feel free to explore her sexuality. She doesn't feel free to play baseball. She feels kind of trapped in this marital situation. And yet she's in a position of extraordinary privilege relative to a lot of other people, not just Max. But also, she has a proximity to a kind of a straight, white, pretty notion that not all of the women who are on the Peaches have. And there's a lot of exploration of the idea that you can experience both discrimination and privilege in the same space that I thought was sort of refreshing. So I didn't feel like Max's story was sort of added on. I felt like it was critical to kind of the central dynamic, which is to make a story about baseball rather than a story about the Peaches. And that means acknowledging there were people who were playing baseball at this time who didn't have access to that league.
MCDONALD: Oh, yes.
HOLMES: It makes sense. And I'm absolutely glad that Max is there. I don't mean to say in any way I'm not happy that she's there or her storyline's there. I just think for every one minute of screen time her story gets, there's five minutes with the Peaches. And I think I would have liked it better if it was a little bit more balanced. I think that her story was just as important to the history of baseball in America as the Peaches' story. And there was a shadow league for - starting in the 1800s in the U.S. that - I don't want to give any spoilers here, but that is just as valid as the Professional Girls Baseball League.
PRESLEY: One thing I really appreciated in that first episode is the setup that the show does in a moment of huge celebration for the Peaches. It's, like, almost smash cut to Max throwing ace pitches against the wall of her mom's salon. So the show right off the bat - oh, no.
PRESLEY: The show right off the bat sets you up to be thinking, don't forget. Like, this is a sports show. You get your sports victories. You get your great montages of sports excellence. But you don't get to forget what is meanwhile happening to the other people who had the same dream as all the girls who are on this team. Meanwhile, there are massively talented people being excluded. And then later in the series, that's reversed in a really interesting way, where several members of the Peaches have a very bad time at the same moment and in a very similar context to the way in which Max is having a very good time. So I do think the show was very aware of the way that the scenes were playing off of each other and did not let the viewer forget the other story was happening simultaneously, whereas the movie - obviously there's no parallel universe happening. You are watching what is presented as the whole story.
MCDONALD: Exactly. Right. There's, like - at the end of the film, there's sort of, you know, this very small acknowledgment of women like Toni Stone or Mamie "Peanut" Johnson. And here, you know, you really get a fleshing out of the experiences that they're having. You know, I think one of the things Max is going through - we see this kind of from the turn of the century - from, like, the late 1800s going into, you know, the 1900s - kind of the gender and race dynamics in the country where you often have Black women being kind of alienated because they are being excluded both from affinity groups for Black people that are actually sort of exclusionary to women, but then also groups that are sort of, you know, for women but are actually exclusionary to Black women. They just mean white women. And so she's existing in this gap.
And I think part of the reason why her character feels so complete, as you said, Linda, is because she has this, like, beautiful, warm friendship with Clance. They rely on each other. They trust each other so much. I think there is a great deal of care that's given to these characters - right? - because Clance, especially, is a standout for me, just in terms of you have this woman who - she's married. She and her husband are both comic book nerds. And, you know, they share this passion together...
HOLMES: Loved that.
MCDONALD: ...That was just so adorable to me. And they are so genuinely affectionate and really love each other. And I think they have this really interesting marriage of really equals. So we see Clance, who is, like, drawing comics to send to her husband when he has to go off to war, even though he doesn't really want to, and he's genuinely scared. You have these sort of beautiful moments of vulnerability that I think work very well, and I didn't feel shortchanged.
PRESLEY: So, Soraya, that made me think - speaking of communication and the ways that these relationships are built, I think a major thing to point out about this show is it lives firmly within the uncanny valley of everyone sounds like they are in 2022, and the show takes place in 1943. How did it land for all of you here, and kind of in general, when you are watching a piece of historical fiction where absolutely no attempt is made to make it sound like any time other than the exact present? Because I guess it needs to be said, if you don't like that, you will never get over that.
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ABBI JACOBSON: (As Carson Shaw) Yeah, when I was first scouted, I wasn't sure if I was going to come because I have a lot of responsibilities at home, you know? But I've always loved baseball more than anything. I mean, except Charlie, obviously. But, I mean, it's just a tryout. It's just a tryout, and it's a free ticket to Chicago. So - and I never been here.
D'ARCY CARDEN: (As Greta Gill) This is really boring.
PRESLEY: I mean, especially the first episode, it just really seems like an Abbi Jacobson vehicle.
PRESLEY: You know, she just sounds exactly like herself. There's a lot of slang. There's a lot of very contemporary sounding communication. How does that - what did you all make of that? Did it get in your way?
MCDONALD: I think through the first, like, two episodes I was like, so are - we're just not hiring a dialogue coach?
MCDONALD: You know, because it's not just the language, but also the pronunciation is extremely contemporary. And then I was like, OK, this is a feature, not a bug. And I kind of got over it, especially because there were so many other elements that I found enjoyable. But it was always sort of, like, there in the back of my mind. I would like to read an interview where someone explains this choice.
MEINZER: I was totally fine with it. I mean, every episode, they threw in roughly a dozen phrases or bits of jargon that work for the era - hey, dollface - you know, things like that. And I'm like, that's fine. I would say what bothered me a little bit more is that for the most part, most of the episodes have music of the era - you know, Benny Goodman-style music. But then every once in a while, they would just throw in, like...
PRESLEY: "Barracuda," yeah (laughter).
MEINZER: "Another Little Piece Of My Heart" (ph) is playing now or something like that. And that actually bothered me more than how they talked.
HOLMES: Yeah. I saw that, like, they were trying to draw, you know, parallels through time between women and other women - right? - between women in different settings who perhaps experienced not the same things, but maybe, like, related things. Like, I didn't think there was any - there's obviously no effort to convince you that Janis Joplin is period music from 1943. And I guess I received the dialogue in basically the same way - right? - because two things can happen when you use kind of period-appropriate dialogue and dialect and sort of pronunciations and things like that. One is it can feel really authentic. The other thing is that people can receive it as studied or affected in some way. It can happen that that can be distancing from the emotional story - not if you do it well.
I'm not saying don't do it, but I do think the choice they made was what they're trying to get at in this series is these very intimate personal stories. And I think they tried to remove anything that could create distance between the person hearing and the character speaking. And so I do think there's a little bit of, yes, these people would not literally talk like this, but this is your sort of contemporary translation of what this conversation would sound like. It's almost like, you know, when you have characters who would be speaking French, but it's for an English-speaking audience so they're speaking English.
MCDONALD: (Laughter) Right.
HOLMES: It's like - it's - this is to be as accessible to a contemporary ear as possible. And I think you can absolutely go either way on whether that's the right decision or not. And I was interested in the way that you guys responded to the baseball 'cause my feeling was there's not as much baseball in this as there is in the film relative to - I felt like the baseball in the film is more dynamic and more kind of - it has those, like, super high-energy baseball montages. I felt like the baseball here was actually backgrounded a little bit, relative to the personal stories. But obviously, that is not a reaction that other people had. And I was really curious about that 'cause to me, it was like, yeah, there's not so much baseball in this, and maybe for people who think baseball is boring, that's a positive thing. In the same way that it doesn't - the series doesn't really have those super-high energy, like, Madonna dancing in the roadhouse kind of stuff.
HOLMES: It doesn't really have that unrestrained joy. There's more of a sense of peril that hangs over a lot of the kind of social time of these characters.
MEINZER: No, I agree with you. I don't think that there's nearly as much baseball minute for minute on the show. I do think, however, that when the baseball is happening, they really look like athletes.
MEINZER: And I believe them way more in this series than I did back in the movie.
MCDONALD: The pitching was legit jaw-dropping for me.
MEINZER: Oh, yeah. Yes.
MCDONALD: Just the strength and the speed - like, very excited by it.
PRESLEY: There was one incredible aerial shot over a pitch being thrown from mound to pitcher's mitt. And thrilling. That's female gaze, baby. That is when you...
PRESLEY: When you show the work, you are showing athletes doing the work.
MCDONALD: (Laughter) Yes.
PRESLEY: I agree. It's, unfortunately, not as much baseball. But the baseball, when it is done, is done with strength and power and grit and agency that's kind of lacking in the film.
MCDONALD: Oh, gosh. And the slides into the bases, I think I was rubbing, like, my own thighs in sympathy...
MCDONALD: ...For those rashes and those burns because, oh...
MCDONALD: ...Having to play in skirts. And the way it contrasts - you know, these are not how these women see themselves. They take themselves extremely seriously as athletes - right? - because when they show up to try out, they're in pants, right?
MCDONALD: I will say, when it comes to, you know, these sort of gendered expectations that get put on the peaches, I still don't understand how these women can play and sweat in that much makeup and not just have it smear all over their faces.
MCDONALD: I did want to make a point about the sort of dialect - dialogue conversation, which is, I think the thing that actually stood out to me more was the emotional literacy of the characters. And the way that they talk to each other feels very informed by therapy in a way that...
MCDONALD: ...I'm not sure people in 1943 were really that in touch with their emotions and the way they communicate them. And I appreciated it. But I think that as an anachronism actually stood out to me more than maybe pronunciation.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I love the girls. I love them. But there is a lot of anxiety in the room, right? And I know myself. And I know that other energies - they attach onto me, right? And I absorb them. And if someone else is anxious, then I go - sorry, sorry. I should be anxious, and then I'm anxious.
PRESLEY: That's a great point. They really push each other to inspect their feelings and deal with their baggage...
PRESLEY: ...In a way that I don't think they would have had time to do having just met and being - like, these friendships and relationships are forged in fire, you know? They've just met. They've got one season. And they're already like, you really need to think about what you want in your life.
MEINZER: Write out your feelings.
MEINZER: Write them down.
HOLMES: Yeah. There are a few, like, little nods to the film in the series that, I think, if you're watching for them, they do try to provide you with a few. There is a no crying in baseball, though, it's completely recontextualized.
PRESLEY: Oh, yes.
HOLMES: You will eventually hear the little song.
HOLMES: Which I was waiting for, which I appreciated. And particularly, there's is a small role with Rosie O'Donnell that I thought was a very interesting...
PRESLEY: I'm clutching my heart thinking about it (laughter).
HOLMES: ...Way to kind of speak to that, who Doris was allowed to be and not allowed to be in that movie and kind of what her role in the movie was. But also, I think it's just a really nice recognition of the fact that that movie was, despite being flawed, really important to people. And so I appreciated these efforts to, like, without being constrained by its limitations more than necessary - I think they do a good job of sort of acknowledging and respecting the legacy of that project without glossing over its many limitations, if that makes sense. I was so happy to see that Rosie O'Donnell part go by.
PRESLEY: Me, too.
MEINZER: Oh, yeah. Me, too.
MCDONALD: She's so good.
MEINZER: I feel the same way - just want more Max. That's all.
HOLMES: I agree with that. I agree with that.
MCDONALD: One of the things that I appreciated was just, you have these beautiful romantic relationships with the Black characters that are filled with so much love and joy. And I really appreciated that about this series because, obviously, it is set in Jim Crow America. And we know that these women are facing really overt racism, right? It's not sort of hidden or under the table. And yet, it's not just a bunch of trauma - that these women have lives outside of the realities of Jim Crow that are shaping their lives. It's just basic interiority. But it was just really refreshing.
HOLMES: Absolutely agree. I will say I had really modest expectations for this show. A lot of times, when you remake something like this, if you stick too close to it, it's like, why did you even do this?
HOLMES: And if you go too far from it, it's like, why didn't you just write a different show...
HOLMES: ...About baseball in the '40s? Like, why did you even do this? But I think they do a pretty solid job to me of being about some of the same things, but in a way that I thought was richer and more satisfying. I really liked this more than I expected to. Well, we want to know what you think about "A League Of Their Own," the series. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Katie Presley, Soraya Nadia McDonald, Kristen Meinzer, thank you for being here.
PRESLEY: Thank you.
MCDONALD: Thank you.
HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Rommel Wood and edited by Mike Katzif. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Linda Holmes. And we'll see you all tomorrow, when - oh, boy - we're talking about the original "A League Of Their Own" film.
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