The League once confidently married a deceptively loose, semi-improvised mumblecore aesthetic with the narrative obligations of a conventional sitcom, an approach that shrewdly afforded the writers an opportunity to update Dad’s stale beer and queer jokes for a generation that’s superficially less trusting of old tropes. The subject matter was never surprising, but the talented cast delivered the punchlines with a wry self-conscious irony that’s basically required of any contemporary mainstream comedy series following in The Office’s wake. (Louie and Girls are welcome exceptions.) Early seasons of The League weren’t only concerned with delivering stereotypical jokes on cue, but with the gay panic that inspires those jokes. The series once exuded an outsider quality that rendered it palpable for people, like me, who largely find the institution of televised American football and its endless procession of numbing advertisements—selling tits, beer, Doritos, cars, and endless variations of combinations of the four—repellant.
Unfortunately, the fifth season finds the show’s writers running on creative fumes. The League would appear to be following in the tradition of other emasculated white-boy comedies, such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics, that have turned to staging broad, over-the-top humiliations after exhausting the possibilities of more intimate and recognizable embarrassments. The first two episodes find Dre (Paul Scheer) prepping for his marriage in Los Angeles, with the rest of the gang in tow so they can stage their fantasy football league’s opening draft under his fiancé’s disapproving nose. Ruxin (Nick Kroll) quits the league only to inevitably crawl back to the crew for acceptance after his attempts to join Rafi’s (Jason Mantzoukas) league end in his kidnapping by a masked cult threatening him with a dildo trident. Mantzoukas and Kroll make the most of this material with their fast and distinctive line deliveries, but the episodes feature way too much Dre, who’s always been the show’s most tiresome character. Pete and Jenny, played by married mumblecore superstars Mark Duplass and Kate Aselton, are almost entirely absent, which is regrettable, as they’re the most interesting members of the cast. Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) and Taco (Jon Lajoie) aren’t given much to do either, though in the case of the latter that isn’t much of a loss.
Some jokes land mildly on their feet, but creators Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer routinely allow potentially interesting punchlines to slip through their fingers unfulfilled. A supporting character announces he has AIDS, which prompts the audience to anticipate some nervy gags centered on the league’s impenetrable self-absorption or, riskier still, around the sanctimonious affectations that can characterize the behaviors of those gripped by major illnesses, but the Schaffers are content with just that quick shallow dollop of shock value. There’s another sequence that promises to feature Dre’s father (Griffin Dunne) waxing drunkenly on what he presumes to be the state of his future daughter-in-law’s cleanly waxed vagina, but that scene also fizzles out before it gains any rude momentum. As such, The League has grown as hopelessly complacent as its heroes, in desperate need of a dose of unruly transgressive energy, perhaps a metaphorical dildo trident up its square ass.