Friday, September 23, 2016

Pilot Review: Pitch

Pitch (Thursdays at 9:00 on Fox)

As much as I dislike sports, particularly baseball, I realized halfway through watching the pilot of Fox's Pitch that many of my favorite movies revolve around sports... particularly baseball. I adore Field of Dreams, Fever Pitch, and Bull Durham, and I can quote every single solitary line in A League of Their Own. So acknowledging my affinity for baseball dramas, I actually liked Pitch more than I thought I would when Fox added it to the fall schedule.

It helps that the story Pitch tells is so engrossing. Creators Dan Fogelman (busy this year after also scripting NBC's This Is Us) and Rick Singer (Younger) have taken a contentious topic in the sports community and infused it with human drama: women playing professional sports alongside men. For sports fans, especially men, it's likely something that hasn't ever been given much thought. After all, it's simple biology that male athletes are generally stronger and bigger than their female categories; it's why major sports keep the men and women separate, even at the highest level like at the Olympics. And on top of that, men's sports are more popular than women's sports. Rarely will you see the WNBA sell out a venue, and you'd be hard-pressed to even find a women's baseball (not softball) team to support. That's the reality Fogelman and Singer confront with Ginny Baker (Under the Dome's Kylie Bunbury in her first leading role), a 23-year old woman who is called up by the San Diego Padres to be the first woman to play in any of the four major American sports organizations.

The setup is simple. We don't see Ginny come up through high school, college, the minors, exposition teams, nothing. Pitch opens hours before her first major league baseball game to a brilliantly done montage of talking heads picking apart the decision to start a girl on the mound; some see it as a cash grab (and one that is working, as we're told repeatedly that subsequent games sold out swiftly, mostly to people who would otherwise not care at all about the Padres or baseball, in general), while others see it as a long overdue moment for women everywhere. But what is it for Ginny? That's what the pilot explores: who Ginny is and what this historic moment means for her. We get several flashbacks to her learning how to play from her father (Michael Beach, Third Watch), developing into the machine she has become and he was never able to be, capable of throwing a mean screwball but not of feeling much emotion. She deals with the pressures placed on her by the world, at large, but also by her new agent (Ali Larter, Heroes); by the Padres GM (Mark Consuelos, Alpha House); by her coach (Dan Lauria, forever Mr. Arnold on The Wonder Years); and her teammates, led by star catcher and captain Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, fresh off the failure of Truth Be Told). Despite a hardened exterior that's likely come from years of discrimination and endless training, Ginny's nerves and emotions get the better of her as she holds the weight of a thousand girls' dreams, not to mention her father's, on her shoulders.

It's not the story that's really interesting in Pitch, nor is it the fact that MLB has given unprecedented access to its properties (announcers, logos, stadiums, names), though that definitely helps with realism and relatability. At its core, it's a simple underdog story, just with bigger implications. It's the themes and characters that make Pitch worthwhile. Fogelman and Singer clearly have a lot to say about sexism and equality, as evidenced in a scene where Mike slaps Ginny's ass, because that's just what he does: "I'm an ass-slapper," he says. And since she's on the team, regardless of her gender, Mike is going to slap her ass. No special treatment. So where does that cross the line into harassment? That's one story I expect to rear its head throughout the season, if only because it has to. There's also the misogynist, jealous pitcher Ginny has replaced, who just wants to get back on the roster and hopes to bring Ginny down a few pegs on the way. And there's the female talking head, the only one who still supports the Padres' decision to call up Ginny after she bombs her first start, who criticizes her vocal male viewership for speaking out against a female player in the majors. As she says, "If you've got a problem with that, maybe you're just on your period." There's bite to the way to gender roles are discussed here.

Similarly, Pitch's characters are very well-drawn. Nobody plays just one archetype (the gruff manager, the womanizing star player, the demanding agent), but they all have shades to their characters. Mike Lawson could easily be a sleaze who rides the attention Ginny's playing brings him, but he has a soft spot for the young pitcher, too. Ginny could easily be an overly emotional young woman, or else a personality-free drone trained to do her job and not let feelings get in the way. But she's both. The flashbacks to her time with her father give shape to the shell she's climbed into over the years. It makes her reluctance to connect to her audience, to her teammates more understandable. More than anything, Pitch is a character study of Ginny Baker. How did she become the first woman to play in the big leagues? What did she sacrifice to get there? What did she have to go through? How does someone respond to such a huge responsibility?

These seem to be the questions Pitch will attempt to answer over the course of its first season, and the creators couldn't have asked for a better cast to do so. Bunbury is magnetic, beautiful and mysterious as Ginny. Her toughened exterior very rarely cracks, and when it does, she explodes into emotion, and we along with her. Gosselaar is similarly charismatic in a more humorous role, but he's also really touching in a late-episode pep talk, setting up a brotherly, mentor-like dynamic with Ginny (which I hope they don't screw up by one or the other developing romantic feelings). Larter is blustery, forceful and funny in her few scenes, and she has a great chemistry with Consuelos. Everyone is so good, actually, that Pitch sometimes has a dream-like quality. It doesn't help that many of the scenes of play are presented as if we're watching an actual baseball game, fake stats on a crawl and everything, so it's easy to forget this is still a drama. By not giving in to melodrama or hyper-reality, Pitch can remain a grounded, humanistic story that will ask you to think and feel more than react and tweet. And that excites me more than if this were the Empire of baseball or something similar, but it'll be interesting to see how audiences take it.

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