[Note: The following contains major spoilers through “Adios Y Bienvenidos,” the eleventh episode of “The League.”]
If I were a person who believed in conspiracy theories, I might, just might, believe that in the final episodes of its final season, FXX’s “The League” was deliberately trying to drive me crazy.
The semi-improvised comedy, ostensibly about a group of friends striving to win their private fantasy football league — even if it ruins the lives of others — has over the last seven seasons crafted a portrait of male friendship as crude as it might be authentic. It’s also created a deep lexicon of jokes, references and history. Even when the legionnaires of “The League” were at their worst, you felt like you knew them maybe as well as your real friends.
It’s the secret sauce that keeps some shows alive for a decade while others die in relative obscurity; that familial alchemy that makes even a show about awful people feel relatable and fun. As Jeff Schaffer (who created the show with Jackie Marcus Schaffer) said when interviewed by Indiewire at this year’s TCA summer press tour, “What we wanted to do was a show about deep history. Friends that have known each other for a long, long time, that have 10 years of shit to pick up and throw at each other.” In short, the sort of friendships all too many of us have in our lives and recognize.
As the show builds to its final conclusion, though, it’s making choices that at times feel baffling, at times feel alienating and at times are downright, full-on cruel. One of the most thrilling parts of any last season of a show is the knowledge that anything is technically possible. But in some cases, “The League” is warping those expectations, and in other cases it’s downright perverting them.
Let’s start four weeks ago with “The Last Temptation Of Andre,” in which… maybe Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi) raped Jenny (Katie Aselton)? He certainly engaged in what he believed to be non-consensual “sleep sex” with his wife because she was asleep. Kevin got called out for this by his friends (references to Bill Cosby were made), but the show pulled back on any real debate on the issue — or comedy, for that matter — by Jenny admitting she’d just pretended to sleep through it.
Then, the following week, in “The Yank Banker,” Pete (Mark Duplass) had a new lady friend named Libby who he was considering making a real commitment to — except that she was just about to hit 30, which made Pete uncomfortable because he didn’t like the idea of being pressured into a bigger commitment. (Fun fact: Duplass is 38 years old.)
Pete’s friends then began comparing a woman about to turn 30 to a 29-year-old running back in the NFL: “At 30, production goes down, points go down, playing time goes down, blowjobs go down.” Counterarguments are offered, but weak ones. Pete’s only convinced to consider her seriously when presented with evidence that she might be turning 30, but she parties like a much younger woman. At the end of the episode, Libby and Pete mutually agree to a relationship described as “free agency” rather than making any full commitment, but Pete “pulls his offer off the table” when Libby hurts her knee. Because women, like players in a fantasy football league, are interchangeable and disposable once their value has decreased.
And finally, last night… Wow, they really killed Sofia, the often-demanding-but-could-get-away-with-it-because-she-was-smoking-hot wife of Ruxin (Nick Kroll). The episode maybe gets some credit for playing with the notion that Ruxin was potentially faking her death for an advantage at fantasy football — a move perhaps not beyond the character’s sociopathic tendencies — before descending into the now annual tradition of an episode devoted to Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) and Dirty Randy (Seth Rogen). Before, those episodes both starred and were written by Mantzoukas and Rogen, but this year Rogen only does voice work, as Rafi and Dirty Randy’s quest for Sofia’s corpse is depicted via animation. The end of the episode features the dramatic (live-action) reveal of her body and a broken Ruxin dealing with his grief.
Here’s where it seems like “The League” might be deliberately gaslighting me (and any other lover of television). The episode to air in between “The Yank Banker” and “Adios Y Bienvenidos” — “The Block” — had a premise that was basically pure catnip for anyone who’s ever fallen deep for a TV show, as out of nowhere, it’s revealed that for seven years Kevin and Jenny have been massive fans of a bizarre sci-fi conspiracy drama called “The Block.”
The episode serves as both a well-justified parody of what it sounds like when TV super-fans geek out over a show you don’t know anything about, as well as a celebration of how delightful it is to become a super-fan, as Pete falls hard for “The Block” during an intense binge-watching marathon. (Confession: I kind of wish “The Block” was a real show I could really watch.)
The actual execution of the episode was perhaps a bit lacking, especially when it came to the ending, but bonus points to “The League” for producing multiple clips of “The Block” that genuinely seemed to reflect a seven-year-long mythology. (It’s worth noting that of these episodes, the only deviation in the creative team was that Paul Scheer is the writer of record on “The Block.” The other three episodes were written by the Schaffers, as well as Dan O’Keefe and Markham O’Keefe.)
“The League” has never been a show that’s particularly kind to women. Jenny is a fun character, but a classic definition of the Smurfette principle, whereas the other women who come in and out of the action are often played by brilliant actors/comedians (including Lake Bell, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Silverman, Eliza Dushku, Brie Larson and Lizzy Caplan), but are without exception only in the show’s orbit because of their relationship with one of the show’s male characters. It’s an attitude you can get used to, especially if your entire life you’ve been watching Smurfette-esque series, but that doesn’t make it any more fun. Especially when specific episodes decide to push boundaries beyond “edgy” and into “fuck you” territory.
I’ll be honest, watching a show that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed for seven years declare that a woman’s worth dropped to worthless after she turned 30? That hurt. Especially because, as mentioned before, “The League” has always previously managed to find that tricky balance between its technically not great characters making horrible (yet hilarious) decisions, while keeping them feeling like people you still enjoy watching on screen.
This year, though, the approach to a final season seems less like a quest to send the show off on a high note and more like a scorched earth effort. Which frankly makes me sad because, y’know, discovering just how big this show’s balls can get this year has not been not boring. But unfortunately, in the end, it just hasn’t been that funny.