Similar to Parks and Recreation, which limped out of the gate when it premiered on NBC two years ago, but soon launched into a full-fledged sprint after two seasons, The League begins its third season with a pair of episodes that feature some of the sitcom's strongest writing and comedic timing to date. But what halts the series from being as memorable as Parks and Recreation is that its characters and their situations aren't as clearly defined or cleverly developed, often taking abruptly cartoonish and erratic turns for no reason other than to solicit cheap shocks.
The latter half of The League's second season began to usher the show into a much edgier style of comedy, and season three's premiere continues in that vein. In the season premiere, "The Lockout," Pete (Mark Duplass) and Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) enlist the ill-advised assistance of Nick Kroll's uptight attorney Ruxin's half-brother, Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas), and homeless-dude-turned-low-budget-porn-producer Dirty Randy (Seth Rogen, adding another credit to his random guest-appearance tally) to film a graphic orgy scene in Andre's (Paul Scheer) apartment while he's banished to a nearby restaurant, forced to watch the NFL draft selections on his laptop. The climactic (in more ways than one) sequence, with most of the league being accidentally locked out of the apartment while the porn scene is being filmed and the drafting computer suddenly selects their picks on autopilot, is a fine exercise in Seinfeld-style plot collisions. The rapid-fire editing provides expertly timed coverage of the group's horrified reactions as they're assigned mediocre players while trying to block out Ruxin's recently acquired fantasy-league championship ring being jammed into a woman's vagina.
Although it may sound like a large amount of the episode's running time is devoted to football jargon, the creative minds behind the series, husband-and-wife team Jeff Schaffer (who previously penned installments of Seinfeld, as well as directed several Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes) and Jackie Marcus Schaffer, seem to be trying to appeal to a wide range of non-sports fans. For the most part, they're successful, blending the more budding bromance/rivalry farce of The League's early episodes with a darker, queasier brand of humor.
Where "The Lockout" may be enjoyed without prior knowledge of The League, the very next episode, "The Sukkah," is not only a direct continuation (the two episodes could easily play out as one hour-long premiere), but it's so chockfull of over-my-gentile-head references that I found myself pausing the show to consult Google in order to keep up. Jewish terms play such a key role in the episode that, for a moment, The League ends up feeling like a dumbed-down Curb Your Enthusiasm. Still, the jokes manage to work because of the fascinatingly asinine ways each character delivers them. Case in point: how the Jewish Ruxin complains that the city council won't issue an ordinance to fix his damaged sidewalk, forcing him to paint a swastika over his sidewalk's pothole to get the board's attention. (Naturally, this is later seen on Google Maps by a teacher at a Jewish prep school to which Ruxin wants his son to be accepted.)
While there's no doubt that The League's third season is off to an entertaining start, the show's main problem remains that it's a comedy about friendship that lacks sympathetic and emotionally identifiable characters. Then again, that formula works well for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Every character on The League repeatedly commits ethically questionable, often idiotic acts, and within these acts of blind foolishness lies the show's black, arresting heart.