Last year around the same time that Jeff and Jackie Marcus Schaffer launched their fantasy football centric buddy comedy series on FX, ESPN revealed that more than twenty-seven million people participate in similar leagues during the NFL season.
Yet I can only hope that the events that occur at gatherings held by real life fantasy footballers are far more amusing than the ones witnessed in the six-episode first season of this lazily crude and unfailingly immature fictionalized universe served up by the Schaffer couple.
Essentially it’s one of the weakest links in the FX schedule which is a shame when you factor in the momentum the daring cable network has built up over the years with critical and cult hits such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rescue Me, The Riches, Sons of Anarchy, Damages among others.
But the failure of The League to achieve anything more than just a smile or soft chuckle is tragic considering the massive built-in audience of those who love football (real and/or fantasy) along with other viewers such as yours truly who could honestly care less about the sport but never lets the topic interfere with the potential for killer comedy.
And laughter is something I was definitely expecting given the track record of Jeff Schaffer, who’s worked on groundbreaking series such as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and even contributed material to Sacha Baron Cohen’s misguided but creative Bruno.
The influence and experience of these previous collaborations initially gets The League off to a great start structurally speaking from its loose, largely improvisational feel as a semi-scripted series and also by creating an ensemble cast of characters who wouldn’t think twice about stabbing each other in the back if it would better their chances at winning their group’s coveted Shiva trophy a la Curb and Seinfeld respectively.
While on the surface it does feel like a cross between the two Larry David shows along with the FX network fan-favorite darling Sunny, the one thing that the Schaffers lose sight of is that regardless of how uncomfortable, risqué or daring the humor gets, it has to work within the context of each show’s storyline to serve the plot and the characters in some way.
In other words, just because scatological humor garners the quick laugh by appealing to the lowest common denominator in the audience, Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers have proven that it can’t be your ace in the hole every time and as we’ve seen on Curb, when done cleverly enough, scatological material can even become sophisticated on occasion.
Likewise, although the idea of a group of “frenemies” might be fun on paper, it’s a whole different ball of wax if you don’t give us at least something to like or at least enjoy about each character as even the Sunny narcissists have their weekly alliances as they pursue something allegorically topical under the guise of ridiculousness.
Actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass takes center stage as slightly more relatable member of the group, Pete who leaves his wife since she won’t support his fantasy hobby as he goes to great lengths in trying to maintain his position as the frequent trophy winner.
Yet while he’s positioned as the main character, the most interesting duo in the group is the husband and wife team of Kevin (Steven Ramnazzisi) and Jenny (Katie Aselton) as they try to maneuver their way ahead of the rest, often managing to steal the most scenes in the process and similarly remain the two individuals you remember the most long after you’ve pressed eject.
Needless to say, the fact that the show is created by a husband and wife team may have something to do with Kevin and Jenny’s cool factor but even when you throw in Kevin’s stoner songwriting brother Taco (Jonathan Lajoie) in the mix, the combination of the extended family plus Pete would’ve been enough to build a solid foundation for the season.
But the Schaffers topple the dynamic with the interchangeable and mostly dull Ruxin (Nick Kroll) and Andre (Paul Scheer) whom we mainly keep straight since one is married and the other single.
Less fixated on football and far more obsessed in how many references to genitalia and gross-out depictions of sex acts they can fit into six extended episodes as though they were developing the series as a production reel pitch they’re planning to send to Kevin Smith to ghostwrite his endless Twitter feed, The League’s a dismal, dispirited and downright ugly faux sports comedy that disappoints equally on DVD as it does on Blu-ray.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.