‘A League of Their Own’ gets a makeover in an ambitious but uneven Amazon series


(CNN)Thirty years later, “A League of Their Own” receives a major makeover in a narratively ambitious but uneven Amazon series, providing timely filters on the World War II-era drama while dialing down the laughs. Specifically, the show considers what it was like to be a lesbian or Black during that period, operating along parallel tracks on a slow march through the season.

The basic bones of the story popularized by the Penny Marshall-directed film haven’t changed — focusing on the all-female baseball league that cropped up during the war — and yes, somebody still says “There’s no crying in baseball,” eventually. But the emphasis has shifted, with the manager’s role (there Tom Hanks, here Nick Offerman) significantly reduced and the casual misogyny of the times significantly enhanced.

That unfolds primarily through two stories: Carson (Abbi Jacobson, who also co-created the series with Will Graham), who runs away from home while her husband’s serving in order to play, and comes to some major realizations about herself; and Max (Chanté Adams), who possesses a killer fastball but can’t play because Black people are excluded from the women’s league, as they were from the majors until after the war.

    They’re surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, starting with the alluring and seemingly free-spirited Greta (“The Good Place’s” D’Arcy Carden), who has her own system — “The rules that I have to keep myself safe,” as she puts it — for surviving this male-dominated world; and Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo, especially good), Max’s married friend, who’s supportive of her baseball dreams but clearly yearns for her to join the settled-down club.

      Mostly, the series serves as a reminder that the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everyone — hearing male announcers say sexist things like “These diamond girls are still homemakers at heart!” — while capturing the ignorance that surrounded disempowered groups, with one straight women fretting about being around gay people, having been told that it “spreads like the flu.”

        In essence, the producers have traded in the nostalgia factor that drove the original for a more unflinching look at the romanticized image of those years, and what it meant to be a woman, Black or gay, in that last case, where sneaking around was the norm and underground clubs lived with the fear of police raids at a moment’s notice.

        Rosie O’Donnell has a brief cameo, serving as a nod to the movie, but to their credit, Jacobson and Graham have clearly set out to construct something new and distinctive around the equity in the title.

          That’s all to the good, though not as much with the pace of the storytelling, which especially during the first half of the eight episodes moves about as swiftly as a bunt down the third-base line. Things do pick up thereafter as the relationships build, and this “League” ends on a note that indicates the hope for more baseball in its future.

            Inevitably building toward a big game, “A League of Their Own” doesn’t go down in the box score as an unqualified success — it’s basically a solid single — but credit the producers with an interesting idea, slickly produced, which feels a bit too stretched and slow spread over eight episodes. In terms of the streaming field, that’s a league, frankly, in which the show has plenty of company.

            “A League of Their Own” premieres Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime.