Complete Season One
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All photos © FX
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
aking a show about something as niche as fantasy football is a dangerous venture. While you’re almost guaranteed to attract a large portion of people who play the game, there’s a risk that the exclusivity of the subject matter will deter anyone else from tuning in. Luckily for the creators of “The League,” fantasy football is only the backdrop of what’s a fairly accessible comedy about a group of guys who bond over their favorite pastime. The show does contain its fair share of fantasy football in-jokes (it has to or what would be the point?), but there’s still plenty of funny to be found for those who don’t spend their Sundays watching the NFL while hunched over their computers and phones constantly hitting refresh to check out all the latest scores.
Taking place over the course of a single fantasy football season, the series follows five friends as they all compete to win The Shiva, the league’s coveted trophy so named after the nerdy Indian girl from their high school. Pete (Mark Duplass) is the reigning champ and three-time winner, and though his wife would rather he skip the new season in order to focus on having a baby, he’s willing to risk his marriage in order to triumph once again. The arrogant Ruxin (Nick Kroll) will do whatever it takes to ensure he emerges the victor instead, while league commissioner Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) just wants control of his team after his wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) called all the shots the previous year. Meanwhile, group punching bag Andre (Paul Scheer) is desperate to earn the respect of the gang by making the playoffs, and Kevin’s brother, Taco (Jonathan Lajoie), is far too busy picking up women and getting stoned to care where he finishes.
Anyone that knows anything about fantasy football is well aware of how serious a lot of people take it, and “The League” perfectly captures that spirit within the opening minutes of the pilot episode when Mark declares that “there are many things a man can do with his time… and this is better than those things.” Still, you don’t actually need to know a lot about fantasy football to appreciate the humor in the show, whether its Kevin bartering for Ruxin’s #1 draft pick by offering to knock five years off his client’s prison sentence, or Pete calling up Terry Bradshaw to get insider information about a player. One of my favorite moments of the season takes place in Episode Four when Ruxin confronts San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates after he loses his latest fantasy match-up because Gates played phenomenally in the real game. It’s the kind of surreal meeting that most fans only dream of, because while you’d think that the player himself would be the one most concerned about his performance, there’s always some guy watching the game from his couch who owns him in a fantasy league that cares more.
Similar to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in that every episode is mostly improvised except for a basic story outline, the cast of “The League” is also its writers to a certain degree. That’s where having a guy like Mark Duplass comes in handy, because he’s been doing the improv thing (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus”) with his brother Jay for nearly a decade. The same goes for mumblecore veteran Katie Aselton – in a role that proves that women can be into fantasy football without being a tomboy – while Paul Scheer also benefits from the shooting style due to his background in sketch comedy. But for my money, comedian Nick Kroll is the show’s real MVP as the pessimistic asshole of the group – the guy you love hanging out with but still complain about behind his back.
It's the chemistry between all six leads, however, that makes "The League" work as well as it does. Without it, the show probably wouldn’t have lasted beyond the first episode, which means that we never would have learned about such things as Eskimo brothers, vaginal hubris, and the fine line between hotel hospitality and flirting. Instead, it became one of the sleeper hits of last season and one of my most anticipated comedies returning this fall. That’s quite the compliment for a show that no one knew much about prior to its premiere, but thanks to its strong cast and a topic that even those who play fantasy football would admit to being a bit comical, "The League" is not only a great companion to FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," but a worthy successor as well.
Special Features: The single-disc release contains quite a few extras for a new show, including extended cuts of all six episodes, deleted scenes (Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez appears in a dream sequence), a lengthy blooper reel, alternate takes, extended musical sequences, and a "Mr. McGibblets' Fun House and Dojo" special.