[This is a review of The League season 6, episodes 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
With the exception of Elijah Wood's character on the now departed Wilfred and occasionally Louis CK on Louie, FX and FXX don't offer up many opportunities to root for the characters in their comedies. More often than not, these networks have served as a flagship for generally unlikable characters and that's been a winning formula for them with Archer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League, which began its sixth season last night.
It's not that Pete, Ruxin, Kevin, Jenny, Andre and Taco are monsters, it's just that there's next to no effort applied to prove their worth to each other as friends (save for the rivalry that is sustained by their fantasy football league) and society in general. There's no hugging, no real sentimentality, and there are certainly no "aww" moments to tug at your heartstrings.
In some ways, the show's attitudes toward friendship warrant comparisons to Seinfeld, where a glimmer of affection exists under the surface and above an abundance of antagonistic and sometimes cruel behavior. In other ways, it almost feels like this show takes it a step further.
Adam Brody's Ted character hasn't been a regular part of the "gang," having only popped up a couple of times last season. And while his appearance in the season premiere is brief, his death (which occurs while he is on Facetime insulting Kevin) and funeral are a vital spark to both the horrible behavior on display in this episode and this entire season's ultimate prize thanks to the fact that Ted willed his Malibu beach house to whomever wins The Shiva trophy this year.
Assembled for Ted's wake, the gang is remorseless and too wrapped up in the minutia of their own lives to show anything more than surface empathy for the loss of their "friend." Ruxin (Nick Kroll) is upset that he mistakenly joined multiple fantasy football leagues, while Kevin is deeply troubled by his new role as the loser of the group after placing last in the The League the year before - an indignity made even harsher by his wife's victory and her blatant disregard for his pain. Jenny (Katie Aselton) hilariously flaunts her victory in her husband's face with celebratory coffee mugs and a calendar.
Kevin's angst manifests itself perfectly in the show's opening moments during a dream sequence that asks Stephen Rannazzisi to get tossed around like a rag doll while limping through the NFL Draft Combine alongside a few members of this year's NFL rookie class. The scene gets cheap laughs from physical comedy, but viewers should also focus on the scrolling ticker underneath the action to spy a couple of smirk-inducing jabs at Kevin from his own psyche.
Of this episode's most comedically absurd moments, nothing tops the brief interlude where producers take a break from the story to introduce Ruxin and Pete (Mark Duplass) to Taco's (Jonathan Lajoie) new recreational creation: street golf. What follows feels like a comedy sketch as the characters simply play through the real world, vaguely upsetting order and people who are simply trying to eat a bowl of soup as they get in a quick game of golf.
Despite the complete absence of realism and the sense that it doesn't fit in with the rest of the story, "Street Golf" feels like a signature moment for the show. What's more, producers are able to bring it back around again near the episode's conclusion to give Andre (Paul Scheer) a chance to redeem himself by saving the life of the Rabbi Taco hit with an errant drive while playing Street Golf in the cemetery. This, after Andre had almost frittered away his new spot in the pecking order ahead of Kevin by getting tricked into doing a hip hop dance number at Ted's funeral while the group and a few pro football players watched.
The episode culminates a few moments later when Ruxin, Taco and Pete try to rescue a draft board that had been stashed in the coffin after the group had almost been busted while doing their live draft as they watched over Ted's body in the funeral home. Why do they need to steal a casket to retrieve a bit of poster board at the risk of alienating Ted's family and those in attendance when they could just as easily re-draft? Excuses about fairness and competitiveness (specifically because Ruxin botched his draft and is vocal about the need to re-draft) are in the air, but it all feels a bit convenient.
Essentially, the last moments make it seem as though the producers needed something awful and awkward and funny to end on, and so here we are. Does that make it a bad scene or this a bad episode? No, not at all, but it does remind us that The League runs a risk with its "comedy and then we'll sort the rest out later" approach, but only if the show stops being funny.
This is a moment in television where some of the best comedy on the air is so intellectually diverse that it doesn't need to be funny every time out for us to consider it good. Shows like Louie and Girls have that luxury thanks to deeper characters, but The League doesn't necessarily have that.
Neither did Seinfeld, for that matter, but it felt a little bit more grounded than The League and those stories "about nothing" spoke to a certain something about the up-turned floor tacks that we all encounter while walking through life. Seinfeld was also at the forefront of the idea that you can play bumper cars with terrible characters and crash them into each other in ways that defy decency for as long as you want so long as it's funny.
The League has learned that lesson and they are ramming away, but sometimes the show focuses on little more than being funny, so here's hoping that they don't start missing.
The League airs Wednesdays @10pm on FXX