Fox’s new drama, Pitch — about the first woman to play in the major leagues — is corny, manipulative, predictable, heavy on the speechifying, cliche-ridden and cheesy as hell. It’s also fantastic, the most crowd-pleasing new series of the fall, so far.
It’s basically Rocky set in the world of major league baseball, an underdog story about a female baseball player with a nasty screwball who is pushed to the limits by her hard-nosed father (and not to spoil anything, but her father fits into a very popular trope right now). It’s incredibly formulaic, straight out of the Major League playbook, with a gender twist. And that’s OK.
The series follows Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) who, after three years in the minors, gets called up for a scratch-start for the San Diego Padres when their fifth pitcher goes on the disabled list. It’s a big deal, because Ginny Baker is not just filling in for a down man, she’s representing an entire gender. She’s also an outcast in the clubhouse, someone painted by her teammates as a “gimmick.” Her teammates treat her poorly. Her manager (The Wonder Years’ Dan Lauria) has no confidence in her and fully expects to kick her back down to the minors after her first game. Her presence invites a distracting, circus-like atmosphere, and her veteran catcher (Mark-Paul Gosselaar sporting an Andrew Luck neckbeard) is a womanizing douche who has no interest in mentoring a novelty act. The only two people who support Baker are the owner (Bob Balaban) and her agent (Ali Larter), both of whom have financial incentives riding on her success, which is to say, their interest in Baker is not altruistic.
Against those odds, and under all of that pressure, Ginny Baker is thrown out on the mound and asked to represent all of womankind.
It does not go well.
But Pitch is underdog story, and a good underdog story has to tear down before it can build up. To that end, Pitch wildly succeeds in ending the pilot episode with a huge crowd-pleasing moment while still leaving plenty complications to work out over the course of the season. Baker still has to get along with her teammates. Her manager is under fire. The injured pitch will at some point come off the disabled list. The Padres still have to win the pennant. And Baker still has demons from her past to overcome. At some point, a love interest will probably be introduced, as well, because this is network television. There’s a good season of material here, although a second season would almost certainly stretch the premise beyond it’s breaking point.
Pitch is about baseball like Friday Night Lights was about football, which is to say: Not that much (frustratingly so for those of us who want to watch more on-the-field action). It’s a warm, inspirational drama from the suddenly omnipresent Dan Fogelman (Galavant, Grandfathered and This Is Us), and Fogelman knows exactly how to pull those heartstrings. Kylie Bunbury is terrific in the lead role: Steel-eyed, confident and magnetic. She can dish out the smack talk as well as she can take it, but when her teammates aren’t around and her guard is down, we are privy to her humanizing insecurities. Gosselaar is likewise fantastic, basically playing Zack Morris to Bunbury’s Jesse Spano: There’s playful, nonsexual chemistry in their friction that should only improve as the season progresses.
In the end, though, Pitch works because it hits all the right beats. It works because it sticks to the tried-and-true baseball movie formula. It almost has to, because the first has to blaze the trail by going with convention so that others can come along and add their Tin Cup subversions. It’s not fair, but Ginny Baker has to take the Padres to the World Series so that she can earn the right for the next woman to come in and flame-out in the second season without costing future women the right to play major league baseball on TV.