Hey, comedy nerds: You should be watching The League. I have a feeling not all of you are, and that’s a problem. Some of you tuned in last season, sure–the show did get picked up for a second season (premiering tonight on FX), after all. But it seems like the show has been slipping under the radar, which is too bad, because it just might have been the best new comedy of last year.
I might describe The League as the first half-hour of an Apatow film, with all the slightly bro-ish but very funny dick-joke ratatat that implies. It’s only the first half-hour, though–there’s no real sentimentality or, frankly, any particular emotional core on The League. One of the characters gets divorced in the first episode, but it’s treated in the lightest possible way–it’s used to contribute to, not get in the way of, jokes.
That’s something that sounds like a strike on paper, but this is a sitcom about some dudes in Chicago and their fantasy football league. Not every story needs a tacked-on sad-sack subplot, you know?
The League especially does not need that, because it’s got some of the best writing I’ve ever seen, along with an absolutely stacked cast. It’s an ensemble, without a true lead, but if there had to be one character who gets ever so slightly more screen time, it’d be Pete Eckhart, played by Mark Duplass. This is Mark Duplass’s TV debut–he’s one of the Duplass brothers (along with his director brother Jay) responsible for films such as Cyrus, Humpday, and The Puffy Chair–earnest and often very funny little low-budget films, totally approachable and likable. Duplass writes, directs, produces, and sometimes acts (the latter most notably in the excellent Humpday) in these movies, and it’s both a little jarring and a treat to see him slumming it in this scrappy little sitcom.
More familiar to comedy fans will be Paul Scheer, the gap-toothed third of Human Giant, who plays what’s becoming a minor specialty for him: the rich, Ed Hardy-wearing butt of the jokes. Scheer plays awkwardly embarrassed better than just about anybody, and he’s in fine form here. So is Nick Kroll, a stand-up whose resume includes lots of bit parts (I Love You, Man, The Life and Times of Tim, Date Night, Get Him to the Greek, Children’s Hospital) but who might be best known for his web sketches, including Fabrice Fabrice and the Ed Hardy Boyz.
Rounding out the cast is Stephen Rannazzisi, whose face, if not name, is immediately recognizable (I think from commercials), and Jon Lajoie, who is very funny but who might be unknown to American audiences. Lajoie is, oddly enough, a Quebecoise “Internet celebrity” who came to fame (of a sort) through his white-boy rap YouTube videos (which include “Show Me Your Genitals,” “Everyday Normal Guy,” and “Show Me Your Genitals 2: E=MC Vagina,” under the name MC Vagina). These five make up the core of The League, and their casual chemistry and rhythm is right up there with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. The League is almost exclusively banter, and it’s done tremendously well.
You might notice that the cast is all male. That’s not to say there are no women on the show, but it’s not exactly to say it’s an equal-opportunity show, either. There are definitely some cringeworthy aspects stemming from this. For a bunch of generally normal-looking dudes, every main male character has a ridiculously hot significant other, almost all of whom fill the traditional hectoring wife/girlfriend mold. The worst parts of the show involve these women–the moments are relatively rare, but there are definitely a few “women! Am I right, guys?” nudges. Why ladies always got to be hosting dinner parties when you want to watch the game? Groan.
What saves the show, for me, is just how straight-up funny it is. The League is crammed full of jokes, so many of which hit that I’m inclined to look past the imbalance of the sexes. The League is a very male-centric show, but it’s good-natured and not really offensive, and I know women who like it as much as I do. That’s subjective, obviously, but if you get upset about how shallow and useless Nick Kroll’s wife’s character is, you’re missing a forest of fantastic dick jokes for some really uninteresting trees.
The one exception is Katie Aselton, who plays Rannazzisi’s wife, Jenny: She’s far too good-looking for her on-screen husband, make no mistake, but she’s also blessed with a damn fine sense of comic timing and delivery and is given plenty of great laugh lines to show it off. Aselton, a veteran of the Duplass Brothers films, is still definably the “wife” of a main character, but she’s got just as much screen time (and billing in the credits) as any of the men on the show. Plus, unlike the wives or girlfriends of the other characters, she actually takes part in the fantasy football league itself.
The League was my favorite new comedy of 2009–I liked it more than Modern Family or Community, and found it more reliably funny than Archer. There’s not a lot you need to know plot-wise, and of course it’d be more enjoyable for you all to just go watch the six-episode first season than for me to recap the mostly unimportant plot points here. Here’s the outline: each television season corresponds to one season of a fantasy football league, and the prize for winning the league is the Shiva, a trophy festooned with the awkward, brace-faced high school yearbook photo of their class valedictorian, whose full name is Shivakamini Somakandarkram.
Andre, played by Paul Scheer, eventually starts dating the real-life Shiva, and is visibly uncomfortable with the traditional creepy sexualized treatment of the Shiva trophy, leading to this scene. This clip gives a pretty good idea of how the show flows: it’s about a fantasy football league, but that’s really just a good jumping off point to show a bunch of dudes having fun with each other.
I’ll be doing recaps of The League for Splitsider this season (possibly with a slight delay, since I don’t have cable), and I hope you’ll join me. The pilot and finale are both available now on Hulu and FX’s site, and presumably the new season will be hitting the web as well. The DVDs came out this Tuesday, which means if you want to go the physical disk route (go back to 2002, caveman), you’ve got a matter of hours to race through the first season before the second season starts.
Dan Nosowitz is a writer and wannabe Canadian. He lives in Brooklyn.