Thursday, June 20, 2024

Pitch Shows Potential Amid Tropes

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Our interests here are about all things geeky. So when there’s a new show on Fox that is created with the help of the MLB and serves as, for lack of a better term, a sports-drama, you might think it wouldn’t be so high up on our watching list. Oh wait, except that Pitch is about a black woman breaking down gender barriers in one of our most entrenched industries.

The premise is simple: a very talented female baseball pitcher named Ginny Baker makes history by being the first woman called up to play in a major league sport. And perhaps the pilot episode’s greatest strength was predicting how different people would react to that. We see muffin baskets from Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton in Ginny’s hotel room, and swarms of crowds outside Petco Park full of little girls holding up signs saying things like “I’m next.” They included footage of real sportscasters weighing in on the event, ranging from Katie Nolan’s restrained optimism to Colin Cowherd’s assertions that comparing Ginny to Jackie Robinson is preposterous, which was just as surreal as Bill Maher’s stint on House of Cards. The opening sequence is effectively claustrophobic, as we see our protagonist do her best to shut out the uproar around her (and her agent trying to help), while everyone else is ready to raise her up as either a hero or a gimmick.

The pilot itself plays out like an almost entirely formulaic sports movie, and in fact covers so many beats of that overarching trope, it’s rather amazing it’s only 50 minutes. We’re treated to flashbacks of young Ginny and her father (who had been a minor leaguer) turning his attention from her brother to her, pushing her more and more in practice sessions, and giving that Tough Love undercutting of achievements (and in one case motivating her to keep going by threatening her brother). This is intercut with the present day plot, where Ginny makes her MLB debut for the San Diego Padres, has a disastrous outing, forces herself to practice and focus, and then ultimately triumphs in her next game by pitching seven fairly solid innings after receiving a lampshaded pep-talk where she’s told that she can’t worry about other people’s expectations.

Even covering all this ground, the show managed to also explore Ginny’s difficult relationship with her father and her lack of healthy development, so I can’t complain about the damaging “Tough Love being what she needs” trope that I’ve horrifyingly seen employed. Then in addition to that, her team was somewhat fleshed out, and we learn a little about the dynamics both of the management and the players.

It’s nothing especially groundbreaking: there’s a big all-star hot shot named Mike Lawson, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar with a very scruffy beard. He thinks Ginny was called up to sell tickets, and he likes to slap people’s asses, but he’s also the team catcher so he sort of has to have a good working relationship with her.

There’s a hot guy Ginny played with in the minors named “Blip” (I don’t know). He’s got a wife named Rhonda who is down to cheer Ginny up with alcohol, and he himself is very defensive of Ginny, even willing to brawl people who are jerks to her in the locker room. One of these jerks is named Tommy, and he was replaced as the 5th starter because of her. That’s the totality of his character, by the way.

Upstairs, there’s the very-involved owner of the Padres, who I can only think of as “Russell Dalrymple” because he’s played by Bob Balaban;  he’s pro-Ginny since she is literally the only thing that can make San Diego care about its baseball team. (Anyone who’s been there can confirm this. They don’t even bother locking the stadium when it’s not in use.) We’ve also got the manager “Al”, who is more anti-Ginny, mostly because she choked massively in her first outing and she’s a threat to team cohesion. His job is in trouble since she’s a money-maker, though to be honest, the only thing I could think any time he was on the screen was, “aw, poor Andy Green isn’t aging well.”

There’s also the general manager named Mark Something-or-Other, who doesn’t seem to do anything but hit on Ginny’s agent in what I think was supposed to be a subplot.

Please let her do her job.

And finally, after all this was crammed into my brain, the show delivered a “twist” ending. The execution was decent enough, and it certainly adds a layer of complexity to the protagonist, but it’s also just…very tropey. If you’re interested and not spoiler-phobic:

[reveal heading=”%image% Click here to read“]

Ginny’s dad died right after a Padres scout approached her, so the present day scenes of them, including one where she yells at him for turning her into “a robot with no friends” after her disastrous first game, were all her imagination. In many ways, that’s how the whole “Tough Love = good thing” was subverted, since she was putting all the pressure on herself. But it also means that the most interesting relationship developed on the show can’t really be developed further. Ghost Dads are great, and I understand that being a mentor in a fictional story has a high risk, but there had been part of me excited about the exploration of that fractured and imperfect family dynamic. Ghost Dad will probably get off the hook for slapping her brother now. Because he’s a ghost.


Given how much ground was covered, it is really difficult to be overly critical of this show. This is especially true given that Kylie Bunbury’s performance as Ginny Baker is quite compelling. She’s able to showcase vulnerability and really make us feel overwhelmed along with her, while also pulling out the believable toughness that any female athlete would have to have to make it to such a position. All the makings are there of something that can be both great and transgressive.

My bby.

It pains me then to say that what has me worried was how utterly formulaic it felt. There’s part of me that hopes the pilot was just a tropefest of doom (it is the exact definition of “An Aesop”) on purpose, to get all the clichés out of the way early and free-up the rest of the show to focus on a character-driven story. However, and I don’t know how to say this delicately: it’s quite obvious that this is a show written by white dudes. That’s not an inherent problem in my opinion, and I’ve certainly praised the portrayal of intersectional heroines created by white men before. But I can’t get away from the fact that there was an overall quality to the writing that felt a little…well, pandering. Meaning that maybe the tropeyness is just going to be a feature, not an anomaly. 

You can see that pandering in the straw misogyny of characters like Tommy, who are just there to be the voice of awfulness that the “good guys” can reject. But then there’s also the mystifying character of Mike, who seems to be a womanizer with a heart of gold? Having him deliver the pep-talk was a decision that didn’t sit exactly right, especially given how by the end of the episode, we learn that it’s Ginny’s own determination that keeps her pushing on, and even her own guilt. Yeah, she’s overwhelmed at being a cultural icon and everyone expecting something of her, so “do this for you” is something she needed to realize. But given the twisty reveal that was about to come, it seems like there was a ready-made narrative device for us to understand her internal thought process that could have arrived at the same conclusion as Mike’s speech, and probably to greater effect. Since it would have been, you know, deriving from her.

If you understand this is overused, then why wouldn’t you try to push for something different?

Aaaand then we’ve got the stuff like Blip being accused of sleeping with Ginny and that’s why the locker room brawl breaks out, or Blip’s wife insisting on “girl talk” and wanting to know if Ginny caught a peak of her teammates changing. Which I’m not saying any of this is exactly unrealistic; half the point of the show is our protagonist putting up with bullshit gendered issues. But to me it came across a little like Modern Family—a very safe narrative. The issue I have with that, though, is that we were given an inherently transgressive premise, so it feels a little like a round peg in a square hole. It will fit, and even stay in there if it’s balanced right, but you can tell it’s not the best fit.

I also could really do without lines such as “this girl is Hillary Clinton with sex appeal; she is a Kardashian with a skill set.” Again, I see what Ginny’s agent was trying to say in terms of the cultural impact someone like her would have, and yeah, public female figures walk an impossible path to be perfectly tailored to male reception. But without this sentiment being explicitly challenged, it kind of just felt like tearing down successful women for not fulfilling this bullshit concept of the “complete package.” Someone go tell Angela Merkel to wear more stylish clothes. Can we just…diversify the writers’ room please?

The only other thing I really have to say might seem strange given how Fox worked with the MLB to make this show, but the more you know about baseball, the worse this is.

I could kind of look the other way when Mike called himself the “captain of the team” like he was Troy fucking Bolton (for anyone unaware, there is only one team captain in the entire MLB right now, and he doesn’t even wear a little patch on his uniform). But then we learn that he’s also the starting catcher, which is framed as a bit of a shocking moment.

This made so little sense that I thought he just showed up in the bullpen to fuck with her.

First of all, catcher is a very difficult defensive position. It’s pretty common for catchers to be some of the weaker bats in the line-up, because having their skill in the field is that important. It’s exceedingly rare for a catcher to be the super-star slugger of the team, and neither Yogi Berra nor Mike Piazza ever had a season with 130 RBIs, as the legendary Mike Lawson apparently boasts. I guess this guy is Johnny Bench come-again.

The main issue, however, was that this guy had not only never worked with the pitcher who was about to start the game before, he had never even met her. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the starting pitcher-catcher relationship is kind of important. Like, okay, maybe she learned the team’s hand signal system through the pitching coach, but they really thought a few warm-up throws in the bullpen would suffice? Of course she was flustered!

Also, what the hell were the Padres doing during spring training? Triple-A players generally get in on games there, so you know who to consider calling up. Ginny should have been very familiar with all these people, and the starting catcher most certainly should have seen her famous screwball before.

Speaking of, I have some quibbles with the idea of her deadly-efficient screwball getting her that far when she can’t throw above 89 mph (at most), but that’s more of a nitpick. Pitch diversity is quite crucial, frankly, and throwing screwball after screwball is a strategy that’s going to have diminishing returns, especially without a proper fastball in her arsenal. Here’s hoping the risk of injury commonly associated with screwballs is over-exaggerated, too.

Finally, she’s playing for the Padres, a National League team. I get that there’s no expectations put on pitchers as batters, but I could have done with a shot of her at the plate. She pitched 6⅓  innings and her team scored 4 runs—she was up at least twice, and that’s assuming her team scored those runs in 4 hits and no one walked. Batting in the majors for the first time seems like a big moment to me. Though then that might not have left as much time for her agent getting sexually harassed at work.

At the end of the day I do recommend this show, and it’s one I’m excited to keep my eye on moving forward. It has all the makings to be something truly excellent, though to say it was a “home run” out of the gate is beyond generous. It was instead like Ginny’s first complete game; it held its own. But damnit I want more, and Pitch has all the materials it needs to make it happen.

Images courtesy of Fox

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