i Need Media
Best fiends: The League gets to the rotten, hilarious heart of true friendship.
By Matthew Singer 10/18/2012
“No hugging, no learning.”
Of all the ways Seinfeld innovated the modern sitcom, that guiding mantra has had the most lasting impact. At least, it has on cable, where shows about irredeemable jerks are not just acceptable but becoming the norm. When Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld built an entire program around that principle in 1989, it was a reaction against the notion that televised comedy had any greater responsibility than simply making the audience laugh, and their descendents have taken that idea even further. In the decade-plus since Seinfeld went off the air, sitcoms have become grounded in even flimsier morals, with protagonists growing ever more sociopathic. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has stretched those boundaries the most outlandishly, and Eastbound and Down has traveled to previously unexplored levels of darkness. But no show honors the notion of the pure, undiluted, no-frills TV comedy better than FX’s The League.
Coming from the network that also produces Louie, perhaps the most original television series to come along since Seinfeld, The League can seem unambitious. It’s about a group of alleged friends in suburban Chicago whose lives revolve around their eight-member fantasy football league. The dialogue is mostly improvised, the humor derived from the endless stream of (primarily genital-based) insults flung among the characters. Wives betray husbands (and vice-versa), people stage clandestine porno shoots in their buddys’ apartments as part of elaborate pranks, and, in the recent season 4 opener, dads trade the naming rights to their second-born children to their dangerously dim younger brothers for better draft positioning. No one hugs, no one learns a damn thing, and there isn’t anything under the surface. Even It’s Always Sunny shows a vague heartbeat at times. The League is utterly soulless.
And, perhaps because it gives itself over completely to the comedy and nothing but the comedy, it’s one of the funniest shows on TV.
It walks a very fine line, though. On a show like The League, where the point is that everyone is a selfish prick, one false joke and the whole thing becomes unpalatable. A few months ago, I interviewed Nick Kroll, who plays the show’s Napoleonic evil genius, Rodney Ruxin, and asked him how he and the other actors keep the characters from losing their humanity completely. “We all like each other a lot in real life,” he said, “so while we’re super-cruel to each other on the show, it’s underlined by the affection we have for one another. The characters make each other laugh, like friends.”
It’s a telling statement. What The League — and really, any successful comedy about a close-knit group — portrays is not a collection of assholes being mean to one another: It’s a collection of assholes who’ve earned the right to be mean to one another. In other words, they’re friends in the truest sense. That’s what we recognize in them, and what redeems them, even if it’s a subconscious understanding. No one can hurt you as the people who love you the most can, and nowhere on television is that better understood than The League.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just happy Breaking Bad is back. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.