The Future Of Television Looks A Lot Like The Past
2:27 PM EDT on August 26, 2022
Earlier this month, news emerged that suggested the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery would involve some upsetting choices. For some (me), it was hard to care much that a Batgirl movie, shot for Warner’s streaming platform HBO Max, would be shelved indefinitely; many DC Comics movies that were released theatrically probably should have met the same fate. Then HBO Max dropped Mrs. Fletcher, a 2019 limited series adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel starring Kathryn Hahn in the titular role; now this affected me personally!
The company lurched from one bad news report to another over the course of the week, but one particular PowerPoint slide presented to shareholders during an earnings call was most dunked-upon for seeming to suggest that “The 90 Day Fiancé Universe” is an entertainment franchise that Warner Bros Discovery ranks up there with Batman or Harry Potter. In terms of “Iconic Series and Characters,” this slide’s creator had also grouped both Property Brothers and Friends. On one level, it was funny to witness the meltdown that followed a suite of reality romance shows being compared to blockbuster movies based on children’s literature. But a debate about which franchise was more cynically conceived to spin off product in perpetuity could only end in a Spider-Men pointing moment. (I know Spider-Man belongs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the fact that the DCEU still hasn’t inspired a meme as durable just tells you how much cultural ground Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav actually has to make up!)
Part of Zaslav’s job is to make this new company profitable—maybe the biggest part, since he’s the executive who came from Discovery and the one who still has a job, whereas Jason Kilar, who ran WarnerMedia, does not. Ditching the guy who (presumably) signed off on the budgets for Succession and The White Lotus and keeping the one whose empire includes dozens of shows in which regular people have to pay for their own home renovations says something about a company’s priorities. (Kilar was also the guy who told Lachlan Murdoch in March 2021 that Covid is "really good for ratings," so I don't want to make him seem like an honorable victim, but given that he kept his job for more than a year after that, no one he reported to seemed to think it was an unforgivable gaffe.) Given his apparent mandate, no one should be surprised that Zaslav is looking to capitalize on WBD’s biggest and best-known intellectual property. More than that, though, a cursory look at the current film and television landscape tells us that the future of entertainment is mostly going to remind us of the past.
Not figuratively, either. Literally. For example: Prime Video’s A League Of Their Own, which dropped its first eight-episode season on Aug. 12. Anyone who knows Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie of the same name might expect that the show would be like that, but more. It doesn’t quite manage that. The setting is the same: we’re watching the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, and focusing on the Peaches of Rockford, Illinois. But the characters are all new, and the show’s creators—Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson, the latter also starring as protagonist Carson Shaw—are pursuing stories around the league that the movie didn’t focus on.
For example: In the movie, a Black woman by the outfield fence at an early Peaches game picks up a ball that’s rolled toward her and fires it back to pitcher Ellen Sue (Freddie Simpson) with palm-stinging velocity. She isn’t in the league herself, because it’s segregated and she would not have been permitted to try out—or so we must surmise from her stoic smile and dignified nod, because we never learn her name and she doesn’t get any lines. (For that reason, she’s officially an extra and thus not credited by name; she’s portrayed by DeLisa Chinn-Tyler.) In the show, Carson’s co-lead is Max Chapman (Chanté Adams), a Black woman who, refused the opportunity to try out for the GBPL, gets a job at the local screw factory so that she can join its amateur baseball team.
For another example: in the movie, Dottie (Geena Davis) initially dismisses the idea of joining the league because she’s married, though her husband is overseas fighting in World War II; she only agrees to try out so that she can bring along her sister, Kit (Lori Petty). In the show, Carson is also married to an enlisted man (Patrick J. Adams’s Charlie), but she soon finds herself drawn to her teammate, Greta (D’Arcy Carden), and before the series premiere has ended, Carson and Greta have shared their first kiss. Spoiler: Max, and Max’s transgender uncle, and the First Lady of Max’s church, and about half the Peaches, and the team’s ex-Marine chaperone Beverly (Dale Dickey) are also queer. Maybelle Blair, a former member of the real-life League, has estimated that 450 out of 600 players were lesbians, but generously added that the movie audience of 1992 probably wasn’t ready to see characters’ sexuality portrayed with full historical fidelity; Rosie O’Donnell, who plays Doris in the movie and has a guest role in the series, has said that in her head canon (and against Marshall’s wishes), Doris was queer. Given that the players’ queerness is a huge element in the series and entirely absent from the movie, one might wonder why they even have a title in common—that is, until one remembers what Zaslav knows, which is that originality is risky. A period TV series about the women’s baseball league called Catcher Carson? Alien! Scary! A period TV series that kind of reminds you of a movie you’ve watched and enjoyed 50 times on TBS? Familiar! Attractive!
Remakes and revivals are nothing new in pop culture (the Star Trek show begets the Star Trek movies, which beget many more shows and movies), but particularly on TV; half the current dramas on CBS are spinoffs of each other, or remakes of crime procedurals of yesteryear. But A League Of Their Own is part of the newish class of shows that are neither remakes nor revivals, exactly, but some indefinable IP brand pastiche. Around the time Disney started extending its copyrights via (dumb, bad) feature-film remakes of their (beloved, charming) animated films, we also got Once Upon A Time, an ABC series in which characters from a bunch of different Disney properties lived together in an enchanted town; it satisfied a specific audience’s need to know what it would be like if Captain Hook and Cinderella shared a family tree. (You’re not going to believe it but this show ran for almost seven Earth years.)
Shortly afterward, FX débuted Fargo, an anthology series set around the midwest, which loosely evoked the entire Coen brothers filmography through a series of varyingly overt winks and references. In the case of Hulu’s Castle Rock, the titular Maine setting is at least common to several of the Stephen King novels and books it sort of mined for its spooky plotlines; the second season linked more directly to King’s Misery, in that it was a prequel about the novel’s antagonist Annie Wilkes, but that season was also, to date, the show’s last. (Quasi-redemptive prequels about iconic villains are a whole other sub-genre I simply cannot get into; admittedly, this has been the province of movies more than TV, but the less said about Ratched or Bates Motel, the better.)
Of these predecessors, the League show is probably closest to Fargo, if only because it borrows various elements at which movie fans can knowingly nod. A player catches a ball in her cap; a Peach writes a theme song for the League; the candy magnate bankrolling the venture keeps threatening to pull his support. We hear about a player on another team who “always goes for the high ones,” like Kit in the movie. (The rest of this line is “it’s a whole thing,” which is one of the many linguistic anachronisms Richard Lawson very correctly calls out in his review of the series at VanityFair.com. I suspect no one in 1943 was calling The Wizard Of Oz “problematic,” either.) In some instances, these lifts from the original are reframed to fit the show’s areas of interest, as when it re-stages the movie’s finishing-school crash course set piece. While the movie makes it clear that these lessons are to ensure that the players are feminine enough to make male fans horny, the show’s concern is that the women should not seem like they might be dating one another.
The League show also (spoiler again) reproduces the result of the movie’s climactic playoff final: the Peaches lose. Of all the elements that the show might have opted not to borrow, this bizarre trope from screen portrayals of female athletics might have been the best. I realize that Rocky famously loses in the first Rocky, and that there are probably more examples of noble losses in movies about male athletes—or, as they’re commonly known, sports movies, with women’s sports movies being their own separate category—but male athletics are, frankly, none of my business. Spoilers ahead for mostly decades-old shows and movies but the women protagonists end up losers not only in the League movie, but also Bring It On, Blue Crush, Stick It, Whip It, and that episode of Futurama where Leela joins the New New York Mets of blernsball. I just watched the 2022 Hulu teen lesbian romcom Crush, and while a thread involving the heroine joining the relay team to get close to her titular crush is not that germane to the plot in terms of anyone’s athleticism, even they end up coming in second at their big track meet! Female athletes can’t learn lessons and build character while also pounding their foes into ignominious defeat? Let a woman win one, damn! Is Bend It Like Beckham the best female sports movie because its leads are basically queer and their team wins in the end?
Up top, I used the term “cynically conceived” to describe the big franchises referenced in that infamous Warner Brothers Discovery slide. I wouldn’t go that far in describing the A League Of Their Own series, which for better and worse seems very earnestly designed, as Kathryn VanArendonk puts it in her review at Vulture, “both to celebrate the film and to fix its two biggest blind spots—race and sexuality.” But we’ll never know what the show might have been were it permitted to be an entirely discrete exploration of the GPBL, free of any reference to any previous version, however beloved. It is hard to imagine that such a show would be greenlit, whatever its merits. As the number of companies creating, airing, and streaming screened entertainment continues to contract, so will the opportunities for anything purely original to reach us.