Regrettably, FX’s sports-themed The League didn’t quite make it to the playoffs last year. The third season of the comedy series lost some of its momentum during its final episodes, all but fizzling out with a rushed finale that hurriedly announced the pregnancy of Kevin’s (Steven Rannazzisi) wife, Jenny (Katie Aselton). Fortunately, creators Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Schaffer seem to have regrouped during the off-season, fine-tuning their writing skills and, much like when assembling a winning fantasy football roster, utilizing the various strengths of their ensemble to fluidly form a well-oiled dream team that dishes out razor-sharp jokes with expeditious propulsion.
To its detriment, The League sometimes spends the majority of its half-hour running time rarely focusing on actual sports, instead choosing to languish in foul-mouthed Curb Your Enthusiasm-brand antics that lead nowhere in particular. The series is at its most watchable when it strikes a firm balance between its multitude of athletic metaphors and its off-the-wall, satirical farce. The season opener, “Training Camp,” does just that, sending the league’s male members to the Dallas Cowboys training camp in order for owner/GM Jerry Jones to buy back the team’s Internet domain name from idiot savant Taco (Joe Lajoie), who registered it on a whim for his cowboy-themed singing-telegram business. By later staging the 2012 fantasy draft in Jenny’s hospital room while she’s in labor, shouting out team picks while screaming and pushing out a baby boy, The League provides a perfect visual demonstration of the show’s potentially universal draw. Yes, it’s a comedy dealing heavily with football, but it’s also about lifelong dysfunctional friendships, something everyone can relate to, sports fan or not.
Subsequent episodes “The Hoodie” and “The Freeze Out” fall slightly short of what the excellent premiere accomplishes thematically, but they nonetheless succeed in maintaining the show’s staggering amount of comedic energy. In classic League fashion, “The Hoodie” turns a more or less standard familial situation into a domestic war that can only be solved by way of a fantasy-football contest. In this case, it’s Kevin and Jenny at odds over whether or not to circumcise their newborn child. Kevin is against it, as his family has been keeping their manhood fully intact for decades, while Jenny seems to want the operation done for aesthetic purposes and to follow the contemporary herd. The fact that the couple can’t find a way to solve this problem by having a cordial discussion with their pediatrician, instead placing the fate of their son’s foreskin on a televised athletic competition is preposterous yet instinctively true to the established personalities of these characters.
“The Freeze Out” features Justified’s Timothy Olyphant in a bizarre guest spot, playing the role of a “white racist” sushi chef who bans the eternally vulgar Ruxin (Nick Kroll) from his apparently haunted restaurant, Spooky Sushi, for wanting a purely Japanese itamae. There’s very little fantasy football-related subject matter in the episode, which reintroduces the annoying, sporadically homicidal Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) out of leftfield in an unnecessary paintball sequence that almost brings the proceedings to a screeching halt. Nevertheless, the hilarious interactions between Ruxin and the group’s perpetual punching bag, Andre (Paul Scheer), manage to compensate for the episode’s weaker sections. The aggressive Kroll and the meek Scheer play very well off each other, undeniably at ease and obviously ad-libbing at times; when Ruxin lays into Andre about his passion for magic tricks, then consequently collapses due to abdominal pain from what he believes to be ill-prepared sushi, it’s surprisingly touching when Andre, a doctor by profession, immediately comes to his aid. More than ever before, The League is full of such unusually affecting moments.