Season Two of The League ends in an ominous darkness. Ruxon (Nick Kroll) won the league and blacked out the Sun. Holding the Shiva over his head, he taunts the losers with his masturbation fantasies. Taco (Jon Lajoie) cries out, “The league is doomed.” This could have meant a myriad of things but at the time it felt like an allusion to the looming NFL Lockout. Tomorrow night, The League is set to premiere its third season with the NFL season very much happening; however, I can’t help but think about how great the show would be if it wasn’t.
Let me quickly summarize what this whole lockout business is: the NFL makes like four zillion gold bricks a year through television contracts and even though the owners were making money hand over fist, they wanted it to be hand over fist over hand over fist. A bunch of boring legal things happened and then the players caved on July 25th. Still, before then, the possibility of a canceled season felt both very real and very terrifying. In response, the cast of The League filmed a few funny yet telling PSAs.
These short films contained more tension and anxiety than the entirety of the series previously. They were likely created to attract some of the publicity directed towards the NFL Lockout, yet by ending each with, “The League plays on even if football doesn’t,” they also offered a glimpse into what The League would be like without its league: emotionally honest, darkly comedic, and quite possibly the best comedy on television.
The League debuted in the fall of 2009 with a killer cast and a solid framing device. A fantasy football league was a great way to show the inherent competition in male friendships and provided a built in audience. “It’s just like my fantasy football league but funnier” seemed like a common compliment, not unlike their female counterparts proclaiming that, “Sex and the City is just like my girlfriends and my shoe wearing slash penis discussion league but funnier.” The problem is as The League continued it began to suffer from a lack of stakes. The effects of this were covered up by the casts improved chemistry; however, it did prevent the very good series from being a great one. While the characters take The League VERY seriously—i.e. Ruxon happily interrupting sex with his outlandishly hot wife to make a trade for Matt Forte (even with his history of below average rushing yards per carry stats)—the actors themselves mostly play it with a wink. A lot of the show’s top-notch comedy has come from making fun of how important fantasy football is in these characters’ lives. It’s this inherent shallowness that has left The League as a sort of a fun after dinner mint to the more emotionally rich NBC comedies with which it shares a night of the week. The League’s league is both a crutch for the show’s storytelling and a crutch for its characters’ relationships. Without it the show would be forced to explore something much more ambitious and unprecedented, specifically, the true nature of adult male friendships.
Dr. Geoffrey Grief, the leading researcher in male friendships, explains that men tend to have what he calls “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships, where females have “face-to-face” friendships. At its core, this means that men are “more comfortable interacting with men around activities—we get together and do things together like sports.” From his research he has found that men are drastically less comfortable having friendships built around the sharing of emotions. Grief argues that a lot of this trepidation comes from a fear of seeming effeminate or even homosexual. This is surely supported in the promo embedded above as Ruxon tragically states, “imagine having to talk to your friends about their lives.” The League in a way has served as an unintentional metaphor for modern male friendships, as it uses football as a surrogate for emotion.
To take it further, often the show has football and the characters’ fantasy league define friendship itself. In the second episode of season two, when the guys ask Ruxon why he invited the generally awful Rafi (played by the entirely hilarious Jason Mantzoukas) to the bar, he responds, “he’s in our league, he’s our friend.” It is this line of reasoning that justifies why in season one when Pete (Mark Duplass) and Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) discover that Andre (Paul Scheer) is in another league, they force him to quit it—a man can’t have two groups of friends. Their unwillingness to except Rafi into the group or allow Andre to have another league reflects another trend in male friendship, as they get older they tend to focus mostly on their oldest friends and want those friends to do the same.
Yet these moments, whenever rarely they do come up, are often played with condescension and cynicism. The show is about how this group of guys responds to each other about football not how they respond to each other through the lens of football. That’s why if you remove the option of football, the outside variable, all is left is these guys and whatever connection they do have. These characters obviously care for one another so they’d be forced to relate to each other emotionally. What would the scene when Pete brought up his divorce at the bar been like if the guys couldn’t change the subject back to football? It would be expectedly awkward but many of the best comedies have made their bones with awkwardness. Picture a scene with the cast just standing around a bar table, literally without a thing to say to each other; it would be tough to watch but if done right, hilarious.
Considering the significant skill of the cast, I believe removing the show’s framing device (or “Quitting the Pizza Place” as I like to call it) and centerpiece of these friendships would result in one of television’s most nuanced comedies. Beyond having the two of the universe’s best improvisers in Scheer and Kroll, the cast also stars Duplass and Katie Aselton (who plays Jenny), who have been wonderful in their roles albeit a bit underserved in regard to their talents. Married in real life, they’re credited for helping pioneer the Mumblecore film genre with Mark and his brother’s debut Puffy Chair. Mumblecore is defined by its spurning of plot in favor of exploration of small, interpersonal relationships. I’m not suggesting that the show would or should move all the characters into downtown lofts where they’d talk about “you know, whatever,” but there is definitely a possible stylistic overlap considering the genre is traditionally semi-improvised like The League is. Ideally, a version of The League would come about that resembles a comedic version of another football-centric show famous for featuring the smallness of interpersonal relationships and somewhat improvised dialogue, Friday Night Lights. FNL was far from being a laugh-riot but for a show like The League it could mean allowing these exceptionally funny people to draw the comedy from something a bit more genuine. Maybe, it would look something like this:
But as is obvious with my fantasy football team’s 2-2 record, the NFL season was not canceled. Meaning, all the possibility of a more honestly felt, darkly comedic version of The League will probably be relegated to the first act of the season’s first episode, appropriately entitled “The Lockout”. I’m sure this season will be one of the funniest shows on television, especially with what seems like a larger role for the comedic tasmanian devil that is Rafi, so it’s hard to complain too much. So, when you watch The League this fall, don’t think about the lack of emotional complexity, think about what Dr. Grief has said about football, “Sports have always been a good way for men to spend time together. Team sports allow guys to get physical with each other in a way that is safe and not threatening in a society that often stigmatizes touch between men,” and know that deep down in the show is a touching portrayal of the difficulty and tragedy of male friendships.