Fox

Fox’s new baseball show Pitch feels like a perfect inspirational sports film straight out of the 1980s, save for its gender twist. The story of an underdog pitcher who becomes the first woman to play in any of the major American pro leagues, Pitch isn’t afraid to lean into the tear-jerking tropes of its genre, or to embrace the Cinderella narrative that SportsCenter hosts love so much. But its main appeal lies in its heroine Ginny, a fictitious insta-icon to a generation of American women—suggesting that the show’s best hope for long-term success is digging into the thrill, and the burden, of the mantle she takes up.

Like another flashy big-budget drama of this fall season, ABC’s Designated Survivor, Pitch works partly because it indulges a compelling fantasy, only this one is a lot less bleak. The idea of Ginny, a female pitcher signed by the San Diego Padres, is not completely far-fetched—there’s no reason, outside of social pressures, why a woman wouldn’t be able to hold her own in the entirely male institution of baseball. As played by the relative newcomer Kylie Bunbury, Ginny is a delightfully flinty and occasionally nervy champ to root for, and she helps Pitch’s pilot episode overcome some of its biggest clichés through sheer charm, even if the show’s long-term future is murkier.

Pitch was co-created by Dan Fogelman, the suddenly ubiquitous TV writer behind projects such as the alien-invader sitcom The Neighbors and the medieval musical spoof Galavant. But it feels most similar to another show he has debuting on NBC this fall, the family drama This Is Us, which my colleague Megan Garber aptly described as “must-weep TV.” Pitch doesn’t lunge at the heartstrings with quite the same ferocity of that show, but it’s playing on similar tropes: The kinds of movies viewers saw as children that follow a classic three-act-structure of expectation, adversity, and eventually, triumph.

In Pitch, Ginny Baker’s debut on the mound for the Padres is a national event, selling out tickets, packing the stands with young girls inspired by her example, and prompting sportscasters to compare her moment to Jackie Robinson famously breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. The show takes ample advantage of Fox’s resources to replicate the broadcast experience of a real game, down to interjections from talking heads like Katie Nolan and Colin Cowherd. At times, the entire thing feels like a massive cross-advertisement for Fox Sports 1, but that sort of synergy is so common in the industry today that it’s hard to object.

Plenty of things go wrong for Ginny, of course. Most of the team is skeptical that her inclusion is anything but a publicity stunt. The aging star catcher Mike Lawson (a neck-bearded Mark-Paul Gosselaar) can’t help but condescend, even after Ginny tells him she bought his rookie card as a kid; the manager Al Luongo (a grouchy Dan Lauria) is planning to bump her back down to the minors once an injured pitcher is back on the roster. Ginny’s biggest fans are her sharp-elbowed agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter, her face in a permanent grimace) and the Padres owner (Bob Balaban), who knows a branding opportunity when he sees one. Behind it all is the looming specter of her father Bill (Michael Beach), who pushed her into the sport as a youngster with troubling intensity.

Fogelman and his co-creator Rick Singer lob the clichés so hard and fast, it’s hard to be offended by any particular one. Ginny’s banished to a broom closet while the team figures out where to put its woman’s locker room…but then she’s won over by the sight of her new uniform. An early rough patch sees her throw three wild pitches as she struggles to settle her nerves…but settle them she does. Lawson doesn’t think she can handle the heat … but by the end of the episode, she’s begun to prove herself. Pitch is absolutely uninterested in upending its sports formula outside of changing the gender of its lead character, but there’s a good reason for that. It’s undeniably exciting to see Ginny on the field in a Padres uniform, with the crisp Fox broadcasting logos around her. This is a show that’s confident in the power of its central image.

It’s Pitch’s future that’s more concerning. The most successful fictional TV shows about sports usually operate on the sidelines in some way, like HBO’s Arli$$ (about agents) or ABC’s Sports Night (about the behind-the-scenes of broadcasting). The great Friday Night Lights, about the culture of high-school football in West Texas, didn’t know what to do with its team by its second season, and only succeeded by rebooting its premise entirely in the third (essentially creating a whole new team from scratch). That would be tougher to pull off for Pitch, since major-league sports are at their very core consistent: A team’s quality may ebb and flow, but it’s going to try and do the same basic thing year every year, meaning Pitch might eventually run out of material for Ginny.

For now, though, Fogelman seems to know what he’s doing. Just like This is Us, Pitch ends with a surprising emotional twist that suggests a canny, if mawkish, attitude toward plotting. Though Ginny has started on the path toward impressing her teammates, there will be plenty more obstacles, big and small, for her to overcome in the coming episodes. If the pilot is any indication, Pitch will be slickly presented, rife with heartwarming moments, and feature a magnetic lead on the mound every week. In other words: so far, so good.

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