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The League (2009-)
After seeing Portlandia, I found it grimly enjoyable to contemplate the collective worst nightmare for its characters. Among my favorite possibilities? Being stranded in a Midwestern sports bar surrounded by braying, sociopathic chaches obsessed with football as a means to social dominance. It would, of course, look like F/X's The League. It's a strange bird, this show, especially if one's used to dealing with critical darlings like Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation. It's structurally and tonally uneven and suffers from sore thumb characters and a host of other issues. Despite it all, though, it's a hugely entertaining experience.
The League follows a Chicago fantasy football league, composed of six friends who've more or less known each other since high school. Kevin (Steve Rannazzisi) is a henpecked lawyer for the D.A. whose wife Jenny (Katie Aselton) provides the brains for Kevin's outfit and concentrates on raising their daughter Ellie. Ruxin (Nick Kroll) is a lawyer in private practice, married to Sofia (Nadine Velazquez), whose hotness and non-Judaism (and ferociously annoying brother Rafi) give Ruxin perpetual headaches. Longtime league champion Pete (Mark Duplass) works in an office whose function is left amusingly unspecified, at least for the first two seasons. Divorced partly as a result of his league obsession, Pete is the closest to an audience viewpoint character--almost a "Mary Sue"--towards the beginning, but he thankfully fits into the ensemble more as the show proceeds. Andre (Paul Scheer) is a plastic surgeon who's probably the most frequent butt of jokes, especially regarding his garish, Ed Hardy wardrobe and fantasy football ineptitude. Last, and frequently least, there's Taco (Jon LaJoie), Kevin's ne'er-do-well brother, who's apparently the Kramer figure (series co-creator and writer Jeff Schaffer wrote for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), constantly floating get-rich-quick schemes, as well as providing a deus ex machina of general weirdness for the show's convenience. The most infuriating thing is how often the "Taco Play" works.
Each season (there are two on Netflix thus far, and some of the third on Hulu) matches the football season, with the players competing for the "Shiva," a standard trophy with a picture of their high school classmate Shiva stuck at its bottom (there's also the "Sacko" for last place, with a stylized hairy scrotum dangling above). Though the fantasy football element provides the show's general structure, usually contributing the initial motivation for episodes, there's little knowledge of football genuinely required (certainly not for Andre). At heart, the show's about people trying, and failing, to "grow up," their obsession with football only providing a fig-leaf excuse for their lack of maturity. Game-inspired trades, pranks, or trash-talk, interferes with one or more characters' business or personal lives, and chaos results. That's the only formula I can really ascribe to this often problematic yet bracingly fun show.
It's hard to know where to start. For one thing, it's nice for once to see an American show not confuse maturity or character with material success. Taco's the slacker character, but in a way he's really only different from the others in that he has no steady job. Kevin's pathetic, Jenny's shrewish, Pete's smarmy, Andre's crass, and Ruxin is... sort of evil (though hilariously so). For someone towards the lower end of the financial spectrum, it does a lot of good to see our cultural masters treated with such derision. The show, however, celebrates a kind of boozy, dudebro camaraderie at the same time that it satirizes it. Pete's a good example. Ostensibly the show's "hero" during the first season, he becomes more and more of an asshole through the second (a "change" that may have been planned all along), sinking far enough to try and give his ex-wife's boyfriend a heart attack. Though his true colors are eventually revealed (the episode "High School Reunion" delivers a great moment of self-realization--courtesy of Party Down's Martin Starr--that's typically swept under the carpet, whether by Pete or the writers), the show takes a while to get there, leading me to believe that The League's trying to have its cake and eat it (much like Portlandia). In "Fear Boner," Pete's reminiscence of a disturbing college experience lays the show's soul bare: "He was cowardly, gay, homophobic and racist at the same time: the perfect quadfecta." Pairing "gay" and "homophobic" in that negative description says a lot about Pete, of course, but maybe also a little something about the show.
Then there's Taco. I've been increasingly following The A.V. Club, the Onion offshoot that's now my go-to source on American entertainment, and one irate commenter called him a "jock's idea of a stoner." I can see where they're coming from, but for me it's more that he's just there to fulfill whatever role the show requires, regardless of character or plausibility. On the one hand, it's very true, I think, as Ian Hart put it in the Ken Loach documentary on the Wind That Shakes The Barley DVD, that "character is bullshit; people act out of character all the time," but on the other, Taco has the consistency of a Lego figurine worked by a five-year-old. One minute, he's just one of the guys, the next, he's completely ignorant of the basics of Western science, believing that free-basing Andre's coriander can cure any number of illnesses. There's been speculation that LaJoie was cast as a result of his success in the world of Internet comedy music, and it makes a kind of sense. Every few episodes, he'll wheel out a (usually funny) song, often towards the end, much like Ricky Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, only here the intended audience are all slightly creeped out douchebags in a bar or pathologically nitpicky, potentially misogynistic fans on YouTube or the A.V. Club, rather than squealing bobbysoxers. It's more down to the writing, though; Taco's weirdness is all over the board. There's too much of a realistic strain running through the show for him to fit in the way they intend, and half the time he tends towards that sore thumb tendency mentioned earlier. In this case, it isn't so much of a "have cake, eat it" situation, but more of a laid back, shambolic approach to the show as a whole from creators and performers.
Much of the fuzzy inconsistency is intentional, and so it's hard for me to fault The League too much on that score. Rannazzisi, LaJoie, and especially Scheer and Kroll use their extensive comedic experience to develop the dialogue, much of which is apparently improvised (more on Aselton and Duplass later). Upright Citizens Brigade veterans Scheer and Kroll are pretty recognizable from elsewhere, Scheer from roles as the sinister Head Page from 30 Rock and Roman's successful former partner on Party Down, and Kroll as Pawnee shock jock The Douche on Parks and Recreation. It's perhaps little surprise that these two give the most entertaining performances. Scheer's character is almost as conceptually offensive as Taco, but he manages to make Andre funny and sympathetic as well as a thoroughly worthy punching bag. The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of many of the others; part of the show's appeal, despite its issues, is the tremendous chemistry among the cast, some of whom came from decidedly different theatrical backgrounds, but all of whom work to make the atmosphere as endearing as it is obnoxious. Happily, "endearing" doesn't quite describe Ruxin. Even given my high regard for the cast in general, Kroll owns this show. He gets all the best lines ("Kid's dumber than her parents") and sells Ruxin's frequent awfulness with a sneering charm that just makes the poison go down easier. At one point in "The Expert Witness" (just about everyone ends up in a courtroom, don't ask why), Ruxin runs into Taco (busy flirting with Alia Shawkat's courtroom artist), who hails him (inaccurate as ever): "Hey Ruspin!" Ruxin: "I don't know you here." The knife-edge between joky friendship and deadly seriousness is hilarious in a way that's... obviously? hard to explain. I was hugely excited to hear that Jeff Goldblum will play Ruxin the Elder in Season 3.
The League, in a comparison the show might appreciate, is like a Budweiser or Labatt in relation to the "higher" comedies' microbrews. Actually, that's a little unjust; it's more like a Sierra Nevada to, say, Party Down's Anchor Steam or Parks and Recreation's Bell's Two-Hearted. It's a little hard for one to appreciate after partaking of the others' more rarefied charms, but if one's in the right spirit, or doesn't expect too much, it can deliver great rewards. The frequently crass humor and infectious masculine insecurities (Aselton aside) can certainly put people off (the football references shouldn't, as the specifics aren't generally fundamental to the plot), but there's much to enjoy in the show's weird lack of ambition (or maybe a kind of ghost overreach) that somehow matches the characters' flaws and foibles. Not every show can be a Parks and Rec or Community, and plenty of slots still await between the Shiva and Sacko Bowls, even for sitcoms.
The Puffy Chair (2005): League cast members Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton are not only married, but also appeared in this early mumblecore entry, written and directed by Duplass and his brother Jay. As with The League and other Duplass Brothers films such as Baghead (which I didn't get), much of the dialogue is improvised. I was already interested in mumblecore through the works of Andrew Bujalski at the time I learned of The Puffy Chair, and the filmmakers' background stirred my interest: both were fellow native Louisianians (from New Orleans rather than Baton Rouge), and close to my age (if a little younger). One of those thanked in the credits, in fact, was a Byron Westbrook, who I'm pretty sure was a friend of my brother's and acquaintance of mine, last I heard an experimental musician in New York (I'll be surprised if it wasn't). The Puffy Chair tells the story of musician Josh (Duplass) who takes his girlfriend Emily (Aselton) and his ne'er-do-well brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins, and there's that description again) on a road trip from New York to Georgia to deliver a recliner much loved by his father during their childhood (or the same kind, anyway, having bought one online from a collector in North Carolina). This complex set-up sparks off a fairly simple, not entirely satisfying story. Josh and Emily have problems almost from the beginning, exacerbated not so much by events as by their own fundamental inability to agree on commitment. Rhett, a well-remembered (and -portrayed) type of Southern hippie sleazeball, thinks little of wandering off and marrying sexy recluses in the woods, and Josh thinks little of acting as his best man (they play Saturday Looks Good To Me's "Alcohol" during the "reception," making me sit up like a shot--well aimed, especially as I first became familiar with the music during the time of filming). By the time they reach Josh and Rhett's parents, things have built to a really muted climax, which I won't give away partly because I'm surprised I can remember it. The Puffy Chair is an enjoyable movie, but not terribly affecting. The actors are all good, the relationships are well-written and -realized, but the story itself doesn't carry a whole lot of heft. Leonard Maltin (or his staff) wrote of 1979's Wanda Nevada, starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, that "if it were any more laid back it would be nonexistent." I thought of the words while watching The Puffy Chair. Though I heartily approve of the impulses and ethos that filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers bring to American cinema, I can't always entirely approve of the results.