TV Review: Football, Relationships Drive Consistently Clever ‘The League’

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CHICAGO – The second-season premiere of FX’s comedy hit “The League” features a bunch of pumped-up guys going to Las Vegas but this is not your typical “Hangover”-esque tale of debauchery. They’re more excited by the presence of Chad Ochocinco than anything that the City of Sin typically has to offer. “The League” is back and even funnier than its breakout first season. Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

“The League” premiered in October of 2009 with more promise than accomplishment but it quickly paid off on its potential by more deftly blending relationship comedy and the world of fantasy football with each new episode. By the end of its freshman year, the show was one of the more consistently entertaining on television and it’s a perfect tonal partner for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” this fall. This could be the funniest hour on television.

It’s certainly one of the meanest. Both “The League” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have a serious misanthropic streak that sometimes crosses from good-natured ribbing to straight-up viciousness but the writers of both shows have wisely understood that these programs work best when everyone gets a turn as the butt of the joke. No one is safe. “The League” perfectly draws man-children who have never tired of playing mind games with each other and merely use fantasy football in the same way they did dodgeball back in elementary school — as a weapon for ridicule and humiliation. We truly never grow up and a true friend is the one who knows your weak points and is willing to make fun of them the most creatively.

Mark Duplass. THE LEAGUE premieres on FX.
Mark Duplass. THE LEAGUE premieres on FX.
Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart/FX

The first two episodes of the new season essentially tell a very-funny two-part story in which the boys go to Vegas for the draft of their fantasy football league and then have to atone with quality time for their ladies when they get back in episode two with things like a “Terrific Lady Day” and an adult date night. Meanwhile, the friends are forced to deal with a hilarious new member of their league in Ruxin’s totally-obnoxious brother-in-law. Some of the Vegas material is a bit over-done but the second episode, when the ladies get to play a larger role, is one of the best in the history of the show. A party with Ruxin’s unbelievable brother-in-law and a moment when fantasy football invades on his sex life are two series’ highlights.

Stephen Rannazzisi and Katie Aselton
Stephen Rannazzisi and Katie Aselton
Photo credit: Patrick McElhenney/FX.

The reason the second episode is slightly more accomplished is not just that the writing is a little stronger but that it allows the entire ensemble a moment or two in the spotlight and the strength of “The League” is in the very-talented cast. The writing could still use a little work but it’s rare to have a show with this large of a cast of characters (seven if you include Ruxin’s regularly recurring wife) of which I wouldn’t suggest replacing a single one.

Mark Duplass (“Humpday”) was originally presented as the lead character of Pete, mostly because he’s had the most fantasy football success, but season two starts off with a pair of episodes that feel like true ensemble presentations — all supporting characters, no lead. Joining Duplass are Stephen Rannazzisi and Katie Aselton as Kevin & Jenny, a couple who hilariously try to balance their football obsession with their “adult” lives, the true man-child Taco (Jon Lajoie), the bookworm Ruxin (Nick Kroll), and the most-commonly-ridiculed Andre (Paul Scheer).

Like a great team, each of the players in “The League” bring something different to the comedy game. Duplass and Rannazzisi ground the piece in a bit of reality, coming off as the most “normal guys” in the show. Kroll, Scheer, and Lajoie serve wackier purposes whether it be Ruxin’s ridiculous marriage problems (to the great Nadine Velazquez of “My Name is Earl”), Andre’s odd willingness to continue to be the punching bag for his friends, or Taco’s stoner charm. And the women on “The League” shouldn’t be undervalued. In many ways, Aselton gives my favorite performance on the show as a girl the boys don’t want to let into their clubhouse partially because they want to keep it testosterone-only but also partially because they know she’d kick their ass.

“The League” premiered during an amazing year for new comedy and its creative success was undervalued by critics gushing over “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “Community,” and other new sitcoms along with consistent veterans like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Office,” and this show’s Thursday night-mate, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” After years of a serious dearth of quality laughs, we are currently in one of the best times for TV comedy. And “The League” is one of the reasons why.

‘The League,’ which airs on FX, returns on September 16th, 2010 at 9:30PM CST. It stars Mark Duplass, Stephen Rannazzisi, Katie Aselton, Nadine Velazquez, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, and Jon Lajoie. content director Brian Tallerico

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