Fox’s Pitch, about the first female Major League Baseball player, has an appealing premise and an appealing lead actor, and its timing feels right. And boy, does the show know it. One of the most significant images in the opening stretch of the pilot finds the show’s heroine, Triple-A ball veteran Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), who’s pitching one game with the San Diego Padres after years in the minors, arriving at the stadium to be greeted by gift baskets from Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton. Much of the country is pulling for Ginny to succeed, save the sexist pigs with turned-around ball caps “to hide their male-pattern baldness,” as one sportscaster puts it. She gets compared to Elvis in the first scene and Jackie Robinson throughout (her jersey number is 43, Robinson’s was 42).
Too bad the pilot simultaneously tries too hard and not hard enough. The actors are mostly good, and a few are terrific — the MVPs are Bunbury, who carries a show built around her as if it weighed less than a mitt, a bearded and thickened Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Padres catcher Mike Lawson, and the great Michael Beach as the heroine’s supportive but relentless dad, who first realized his little girl had an arm like a howitzer when she was barely 5 years old.
But the first episode of Pitch does its cast and premise no favors. It’s filled with network TV writing and filmmaking clichés, from the guy who stares menacingly at the heroine and then bursts into a grin because he’s actually known her for a long time (Mo McRae’s center fielder, Blip Sanders), to the rat-a-tat, smart-ass dialogue that’s meant to sound colorful and tough but is usually either exposition or threats dolled up with linguistic curlicues and pop-culture references. “Hey, Joe, I realize it’s just a two-minute ride to the stadium, and I know you’ve dealt with paparazzi before, but there’s a billion-dollar piece of cargo back here, and if you Princess Di her ass and we both survive, I’m gonna Red Wedding you and her entire family,” says Ginny’s agent, Amelia Slater, during the limo ride to the game. There’s a lot of dialogue like that and it’s wearisome. The only shows where people should be allowed to talk that way are Shonda Rhimes’s because it’s part of her aesthetic; every other show that tries it just sounds as if it’s trying to get away with not writing interesting dialogue. Worse, the heroine’s big crisis in the pilot involves her nearly being undone by her emotions, which is maybe not the best message to be sending in a pro-sports-equality series that’s already been written off by some sports bros for being “unrealistic.” (“The fastest pitch ever thrown by a woman was 69 mph, a feat easily reached, and frequently surpassed, by most male high-school pitchers,” noted one viewer that I won’t link to.)
I like Pitch and would like it to succeed long enough to become an actual show, instead of an idea for a show with a pretty good marketing campaign. This transformation might happen as early as episode two, but I wouldn’t know because Fox only made the first episode available for critics.