I’ll have to admit watching tv isn’t a big priority for me despite the fact that it is the preeminent medium of our streaming era. Aside from the unpredictable live result of New York Mets baseball and the tones of Gary Cohen Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, little on tv holds interest for me. But a few things did pass my radar:
• Best of 2016: My unexpected favorite show of the year was Pitch which given my love of baseball should come as no surprise. The baseball drama is set in San Diego and features the adventures of the first female pitcher in the major leagues, Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), fifth starter for the Padres. While this scenario is unlikely, enough people have played on co-ed softball teams that it’s actually kind of plausible, and there have been several pro female pitchers in reality and even a few integrated college ball teams and the Sonoma Stompers signed two female pitchers this year. The career of Eri Yoshida, the “Knuckle Princess” is particularly colorful, and although her 5.56 ERA wasn’t anything to write home about, it’s just typically awful, and would have been welcome in the 2006 NY Mets bullpen.
Female pitchers have also been the subject of other books and even a movie, the very obscure film Blue Skies Again, which plucked a local community college softball pitcher as its star, her first and only acting role.
Anyway, I watched this show the Friday after the election, a glass of wine at hand, and maybe I just missed baseball, maybe I just needed something positive, but Pitch’s aspirational story of feminist accomplishment was just what the doctor ordered. I never binge watched a show before, but I loved each and every minute of this show.
Pitch is produced in cooperation with Major League Baseball and it shows, with authentic uniforms, announcers and locations, including PetCo Park. I must confess, seeing the familiar streets and vistas of San Diego is part of the charm of the show for me, and one episode even mentioned Comic Con – should Pitch be renewed, one can only hope for some kind of cross over episode.
While this is a TV drama with soap opera elements, it feels remarkably reality based for sports fans. The pilot episode covers so many aspects of what it would really be like for a female to play in the big leagues, from the media interest to the teammate resentment, that some people thought it was an actual news story.
Being that this is a little bit of propaganda for MLB, it’s no surprise that the outpouring of hate speech and tweets that would greet any successful African American woman are not dwelt on, though. This is a positive, feel good story about accomplishment. Ginny’s story is alluded to without beating anyone over the head with it: a dad who trained her to pitch to the exclusion of everything else in life, and the supposition that she’s been playing with men her whole life, so trying to fit in with the macho culture of pro sports is second nature to her.
As Ginny, Bunbury is earnest, plausibly athletic, and, yes, drop dead gorgeous. Once again, it’s no surprise that she isn’t given too many demons, but just some all too human lapses in concentration. I do love that she isn’t the greatest pitcher of all times, but a fifth starter with a wily arsenal of breaking balls and speciality pitches like the screwball. Hey RA Dickey won the Cy Young award despite being missing a tendon in his arm, so again, plausibility. Disbelief is suspended easily when its this nice. I also love how her locker room is a little repurposed equipment closet, and rather than being put in the closet metaphorically or in reality, it’s rather her own little domain.
As likable a character as Ginny is, it must be said, Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Mike Dawson literally steals the show here. Playing an aging catcher who knows his playing days are numbered, Mike is riveting and multi-faceted in the way only a white male character can be. Gosselaar put on 20 extra pounds for the role and he inhabits the craggy, regret-filled Dawson like a second skin. In the pilot episode, Dawson starts out like a sexist butt slapping playboy, but by the second episode he’s a vulnerable romantic who’s still in love with his ex wife and flubs as often as he hits a gamer winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. His attempt to have a second career as an announcer is particularly hilarious and fresh.
Mike is such a nuanced character that everyone else comes off as less developed. Mark Consuelos and Ali Larter as, the hotshot latino GM and Ginny’s cutthroat agent come off as attractive and smart. Mo McRea and Meagan Holder play outfielder Blip Sanders and his wife Evelyn, and they have a nice, down to earth vibe as a couple that plays off the tropes of NBA Housewives and Total Divas. Dan Lauria is good as the manager, a man who is a little bit behind the time but remembers that the fundamental rules of giving fatherly advice apply. As the season progresses, former college catcher Christian Ochoa also makes a mark as a Cuban refugee who gives Mike a run for his money behind the plate.
What Pitch does the best is balance personal stories — Ginny is out of sots when her mother comes to visit, a situation known to all living humans – with baseball drama. It’s the trading deadline – who will stay and who will go? The obvious chemistry between Ginny and Mike (dubbed Bawson by shippers) got played out a bit fast, with a near make out session when Mike was going to go to the Cubbies so h could win the championship that had eluded him, a romantic development that seemed a bit sudden but with cancellation looming (see below) I think they wanted to get it out of the way.
As regular Beat readers may know, I’m something of a baseball fanatic, and doesn’t this show play fast and loose with the reality of baseball? I have to say the answer is firmly no. OK maybe 90% of the show is realistic and the last 10% is weird, but it’s pretty forgivable. My one kvetch is that the Padres seem to play an awful lot of day games so that people have have plot forwarding dinners afterwards. The rest, I can forgive.
And one has to marvel at the logistical feats of the show – baseball scenes are shot in batches at an actual ballpark, and the actors have to make it look realistic.
Despite all the hopes and dreams of MLB and Fox (which airs baseball weekly) – and the high regard for creator Dan Fogelman whose This Is Us is a hit – Pitch was not a ratings success, probably because its blend of romantic melodrama and baseball lore is aimed firmly at an audience of people like me – women who love baseball. It’s not a non-existent group but it’s a bit specialized. (The show is mostly written and directed by women, as well, making it feminist behind the scenes as well as on the mound.) Ratings were low and a second season is far from guaranteed given the expense and complexity of making the show. The one hope might be that Fox and MLB have some kind of chummy little deal going and that fan efforts have some effect. Otherwise…Bawson will live on in our dreams.
That said, in my dreams, I’d love to see the cast expand a bit in the second season – where is the flakey lefthanded relief pitcher? The hot tempered third baseman with a groin pull? The dizzy rookie infielder who can’t catch the ball? This is the Padres we’re talking about after all. Introducing some of the wacky baseball antics that we all know and love would just thicken the already tasty stew.
If that doesn’t happen — and it must be accounted unlikely – with its 10 episodes Pitch will have stood as one of the best baseball tv show of all times. Not that there was much competition. Bay City Blues?
Pitch is a quirky show of limited appeal with a gimmicky macguffin. That it should have been executed with such warmth and genuine skill is another sign that TV is the chosen medium of our times.
If you can’t wait the 40 days until pitchers and catchers report, you can Watch Pitch online at Fox.com.
Okay and now the rest:
• Stranger Things: This wasn’t as good as everyone said but it did prove that a charming period piece based on nostalgia for genre (kids solving mysteries) and crushes (Wynona Ryder) would have appeal when done cleverly and with an authentic credit type face and synth score.
• Black Mirror Season 3 – this show grows more like a documentary with every passing minute and we are powerless to stop it.
• Game of Thrones: as previously noted, with no more meddling from creator George R R Martin producers were free to rocket along with a series of incredibly satisfying confrontations, set pieces and denouements. A girl is finally doing something!
• Better Call Saul – even in a golden era this exquisitely acted and plotted show should be a standout but people kind of take it for granted because it isn’t Breaking Bad? The relationship between Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is nothing short of revelatory, with noe unexpected depth after another.
• Fargo – oh wait that was 2005. Hey Noah Hawley is making a Superhero show…hm…..
• I didn’t watch Luke Cage yet!
• Worst of the year: The Walking Dead – I only watch this because it’s my job at this point. For years every time something happens you’re like “Oh but wait until you meet negan!” and when that finally happens every trick in the books has been (pardon the expression) beaten to death with a baseball bat. The ratings plunged and the downward spiral has begun. Kirkman’s other show, Outcast, debuted on Showtime and approximately 12 people noticed.