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TV First Tried to Adapt A League Of Their Own in 1993. It Was an Unmitigated Disaster.

No Hanks, no Madonna, no Geena Davis — no wonder this sitcom cash-in flopped.
  • The cast of the 1993 CBS sitcom A League of Their Own:  (Front) Tracy Reiner, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Nelson, (Rear) Sam McMurray, Katie Rich, Carey Lowell, Christine Elise, Wendy Makkena. (Photo: Sony Pictures Television/Everett Collection)
    The cast of the 1993 CBS sitcom A League of Their Own: (Front) Tracy Reiner, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Nelson, (Rear) Sam McMurray, Katie Rich, Carey Lowell, Christine Elise, Wendy Makkena. (Photo: Sony Pictures Television/Everett Collection)

    Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own was an unequivocal smash hit in the summer of 1992. The film, about a team in the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was a $100-million dollar crowd-pleaser that finished in the top ten that year and left an indelible impression on pop culture if for no other reason than it clarified the position of crying in baseball. Now, 30 years later, Amazon Prime Video is delivering a TV series adaptation created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham, a new story with new characters that promises to be more thematically sophisticated than the original film.

    But this new series isn't the first time that A League of Their Own was adapted for TV. Back in the spring of 1993, CBS premiered a sitcom version of the film that starred a handful of the same actors (although none of the film's big stars). The show lasted a grand total of three episodes before it was pulled from the schedule, ultimately burning off two more episodes that August and leaving one unaired, joining the ranks of the Sandra Bullock-starring Working Girl TV show, the Ferris Bueller's Day Off sitcom that co-starred Jennifer Aniston, and so many other ill-fated TV versions of popular films.

    Although TV's 1993 A League of Their Own was pretty much immediately kicked into the dustbin of history, episodes still exist on YouTube in all their glitchy low-fi glory, and revisiting the pilot is an eye-opener in the way that TV and movies used to relate to each other. These days TV and movies more or less exist on parallel tracks, with the exception of the biggest-budget blockbusters. Actors, directors, and writers move freely from one medium to the other, with TV having taken on much more sophisticated visual designs and narrative themes. Recent TV adaptations of movies — from Fargo to Limitless to indeed the new A League of Their Own — have been free to get creative in pivoting from their big-screen inspirations.

    It's not that A League of Their Own the sitcom was stripped of all the original film's talent. Penny Marshall returned to direct the pilot, just as she'd done with the film; ditto screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Tom Hanks was not back as manager Jimmy Dugan, although he too would direct the third episode. The roles originally played by Geena Davis (Dottie), Lori Petty (Kit), Madonna ("All the Way" Mae), and Rosie O'Donnell (Doris) were all re-cast, and David Strathairn's role as league commissioner Ira Lowenstein was cut altogether. That said, the show did retain a handful of cast members, including Megan Cavanagh as Marla Hooch, Tracy Reiner as Betty Spaghetti, and in the series' bright spot, Jon Lovitz reprising his role as scout Ernie Capadino. (Garry Marshall also makes a cameo in the pilot as Walter Harvey, candy bar mangate and owner of the league.)

    The pilot basically picks up where we left off at the end of the film. The Rockford Peaches are back for their second season, and their star catcher Dottie Hinson has returned to the Oregon farmland with her husband. The major change to the story is that Dottie's sister Kit was seemingly never traded to Racine. She's still pitching for the Peaches' as the team struggles and Jimmy Dugan berates everyone (except for Betty Spaghetti, since her husband died in the war). Walter Harvey stops by with news that the Peaches have two weeks to turn things around or else he's closing down the team, which one supposes puts the "sit" in this particular sitcom. So Lovitz is dispatched to Oregon to convince Dottie to return to the team and help the Peaches turn their fortunes around.

    The most striking thing about revisiting the pilot today is how jarring it is to watch a film get converted into a multi-cam sitcom. What few baseball scenes there are get filmed outdoors, but the bulk of the show takes place on traditional sitcom soundstages, laugh track and all. It's like this show about a 1940s baseball team is taking place on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond.

    The cast is very mid-'90s TV with a lot of familiar faces (if not familiar names) replacing the big movie stars. Sam McMurray (you might remember him as Chandler's boss on Friends) was Jimmy Dugan; a pre-Law & Order Carey Lowell was Dottie; Christine Elise, fresh off of playing Emily Valentine on Beverly Hills, 90210, played Kit. In the show's funniest casting decision, Wendy Makkena, best known for having just played Sister Act's demure Sister Mary Robert, was cast to fill Madonna's shoes as "All the Way" Mae.

    The highlight of the entire endeavor is Lovitz, who retains much of the hilariously rude charm of his performance from the film. The Saturday Night Live veteran knew the rhythms of TV comedy and sells every one-liner with a sneer. You get the sense that if the show had managed to last more than a handful of episodes, a smart showrunner would have found a way to make his character far more centralized.

    A League of Their Own died a swift death. Its three aired episodes made for the 91st ranked TV program of the 1992-93 season, tied with the final season of Quantum Leap and an NBC sitcom called Rhythm & Blues, which starred Roger Kabler (best known as the "Zima guy" for the TV commercials he did for the sparkling alcoholic beverage) as a radio deejay whose voice got him mistaken for a Black man. Early '90s TV!

    With a little luck, the new A League of Their Own TV series will pave over the grave of the 1993 series and serve as a worthy tribute to Penny Marshall's original film, which had humor, heart, and some fantastic performances. A scaled-down sitcom version just couldn't compare.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: A League of Their Own, Carey Lowell, Christine Elise, Jon Lovitz, Penny Marshall