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TV Tonight: League of Not-Exactly-Gentlemen

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FXThe League might have been a lot better if there were a lot less of it.

Watching the first two episodes of this raunchy FX sitcom, about 30-something guys in a fantasy-football league, I got to thinking that the premise would have made a perfect webisode series. Online series have not been around long enough to have a list of defining tropes and setups like TV series do, but one thing that web shows have been especially good at is telling micro stories of obscure obsessions (e.g., The Guild and The Line) that speak to larger issues about their characters. Expanded to half-hour length, The League has to be about more than fantasy football, and that’s where it runs into trouble.

You might think I’m writing this as a disappointed fantasy-football fan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reading reviews of The League, I am beginning to think that I am the only TV critic who is not involved in fantasy sports. In fact, I’m not even much of an actual-football fan. That doesn’t matter. I don’t play World of Warcraft either, but that doesn’t make The Guild any less funny to me. (At least I don’t think it does; by definition I suppose I can’t prove that.)

The League centers on five friends/siblings/frenemies competing for an annual fantasy-league trophy, and when it focuses on the machinations the guys go to to win, it’s pretty funny. (In the pilot, a kid’s birthday party becomes a thinly veiled excuse for the guys to jockey for draft picks.)

But the show is weak, sometimes plain creepy, when it moves from fantasy football to male fantasy. Upping the sex to broaden the interest, The League pairs its schlubs with two-dimensional women. There’s a hot but crazy ex-wife; a bitchy, sexually denying wife who just had a baby yet looks ready to model lingerie; the “good” wife, who gets the whole fantasy football thing but is given to getting drunk and boasting about her vagina; and a series of pickups for unattached stoner Taco (Jon Lajoie). Like ABC’s failed Big Shots but wackier, it’s a skeevy sausagefest of unsympathetic characters and ugly bro-itude that had me on the verge of considering a sex change.

The show at least occasionally has fun acknowledging the guys’ implausibly hot wives. Explaining why he’d never get a divorce, Ruxin (Nick Kroll, who was dryly excellent in ABC’s Cavemen) tells a pal that he could never expect get as lucky again in the women department: “She is still smokin’ hot, whereas I look like a Nazi propaganda cartoon of a Jew.” Instead, he sulks around while his withholding wife tortures him, and masturbates to an online bra catalog. (The show’s creators, Jeff Schaffer and Jackie Marcus Shaffer, are husband and wife, so that theoretically mitigates the show’s man’s-eye view of marriage. Theoretically.)

The big failing of The League, besides its basic contempt for its female characters, is a common one to underdeveloped buddy comedies: maybe out of an effort to create different comic types who fit different roles, the show ends up with five unappealing guys who don’t seem to have much reason to like one another in the first place. (Taco and Kevin, played by Stephen Rannazzisi, are at least brothers.) The group includes André (Human Giant’s Paul Scheer), a plastic surgeon whom the other four have tormented since high school; we’re supposed to find it funny because he’s rich, it seems, but it just makes the rest seem like tools for picking on a weakling.

As for the others, their interaction runs from ball-busting to malicious—which might work if The League was intended as some kind of satire of men driven over the edge from wanting to win, but since we’re actually meant to like these guys, it’s a problem. The League’s idea of masculinity—basically, escaping from work and relationships through competition, beer and porn—is probably supposed to be raw and real. But it’s also real depressing.