FX’s The League follows a group of ball-breaking friends in an intense fantasy football league. Sounds stupid. It sounded stupid when it came out. It sounds stupid when you see it advertised. The details of any given episode’s script—the “plot,” you might say—would, objectively, also sound stupid. And yet somehow, it got picked up for a second season.
The show has survived this long by pulling a clever bait-and-switch. The initial draw of the show is obvious: it depicts the lives of white, working-stiff buddies who talk sports over beers. It appeals immediately to people of a similar disposition.
There’s eye candy, NFL cameos, and fart jokes—all good, if commonplace things on male-centric television. At first, much of the humor comes from the characters ripping on each other and belittling each other’s fantasy follies. There is a point, though, where The League turns the laughs outward.
By micro-managing the storyline of the meta-fantasy football league, the show draws in its target audience while lampooning the legions of men who see their reflections in the ludicrous characters. The result approaches quality satire and stands out as a self-conscious show in spite of its stupid-sounding premise.
FX promotes the show to foster the feeling that you’re hanging with your bros. One ad declares, “Live the dream! Share the glory! Feel the passion! You’re in… The League.” Offering virtual companionship is certainly not a new idea in television—there was once a show called Friends.
Buddy shows are everywhere. But every time Vinny Chase buys Turtle a Ferrari, or E a Maserati, or Johnny, E, and Turtle each a Ducati, the non-Italian-vehicle-having viewership loses sight of themselves in the characters. (The previous sentence was an Entourage reference—if you have not watched Entourage, it also serves as a summary of the entire series.)
Without grounding a show in cultural reality, the humor stands for nothing. It’s just vapid dreck, too busy admiring its cleverness to comment on anything worthwhile. The League allows for the same low-brow bullshitting as other shows, but taken as a whole, it keeps us laughing at something more.
Our culture of technology is making men’s lives a series of hyperrealities, punctuating our daily routine with trips into La-La land. Fantasy football is the least of it. For the generation that grew up post-Nintendo, playing video games is no longer a niche diversion for adolescents and uber-dorks.
The latest Call of Duty made $550 million in its first five days on sale. A huge portion of that money came from people with neither acne nor anime posters on their walls; grown adults looking for an escape after (or during) work. In the meantime, social networks allow—nay, necessitate—that you construct avatars to put forward a contrived image of yourself. Existing in the professional world without LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter takes food off your table. Slipping into virtual personas is the new American male pastime. The League’s characters are firmly entrenched in this world, but as viewers we are afforded the distance to poke fun at these eager sports geeks—despite how similar we may be.
Around 27 million Americans play fantasy football, so some of the show’s audience comes thirsty for a taste of all things NFL. And undoubtedly much of the immediate humor is in the unnatural bump-set-spike repartee that makes Entourage so goddamn awful. Perhaps analyzing why something is funny is the quickest way to kill the joke. But, hopefully, The League allows us to criticize the banal minutiae of man’s hyperreality addiction while squeezing in a few fart jokes.