There’s something reassuring about formulaic storytelling done well. When it clicks, it’s like sinking into a warm bath and letting all your cares float away.
But it’s also really hard to execute on a formula in a way that doesn’t leave the audience reaching for the remote. We’ve all seen this stuff before. We know the big game will be won at the last moment, that the guy will realize he loves the girl and run to stop her from getting on the plane, that the psycho serial killer isn’t really dead the first time.
That’s why Fox’s new drama Pitch — about the first woman to join Major League Baseball — is so impressive. It’s formulaic as can be, yet still incredibly compelling. It’s got the young kid who makes it to the pros and immediately realizes she’s in over her head, the crusty old teammate who agrees to take her under his wing, and the big game where it’s all on the line. But it makes those elements seem fresh.
In other words, you know where this story going. But Pitch overcomes its familiarity — and a pretty asinine story turn late in the first episode — simply through sheer force of will.
Here are three (spoiler-free) reasons why.
1) Star Kylie Bunbury possesses an abundance of charisma
Pitch wouldn’t work without the right star.
She must be able to convey the huge amount of stress placed on a barrier breaker like Ginny Baker, the star pitcher she portrays. She must be able to show Ginny unraveling under that stress. She must juggle big dramatic moments and lighter, comedic ones. And in the middle of it all, she must be at least somewhat convincing as a pitcher.
Kylie Bunbury aces all of these tasks with ease. It’s a star-making performance, and it helps sell all of the formula and cheese I described above. When Ginny comes up against opposition from her teammates or the media or just people who are being jerks, you’ll quietly hope, simultaneously, that she won’t let it get to her and that maybe she can kill her enemies with her mind.
Network television is often at its best when it’s creating stars, rather than coasting off the presence of actors who are known for other roles. Yes, it sometimes helps to have a recognizable face playing the main character, but good TV shows are so often about getting to know someone. In the end, Pitch’s greatest strength is that it’s centered on somebody you really, really want to get to know.
(Bonus: The supporting cast is wonderful, too, especially Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the grizzled veteran catcher who realizes that his legacy could be helping Ginny become a big league fixture.)
2) The victories are hard-won
Pitch is a sports drama, so it’s going to have those requisite moments when everything seems lost, but wait — Ginny has one more trick up her sleeve!
And one of the big obstacles that’s kept TV dramas about sports from achieving the same level of success as, say, movies about sports is that if a team on a TV show won every game thanks to last-second ingenuity and luck, the show would end up feeling exhausting. So the big rah-rah, "Go team!" scenes you see in sports films aren’t going to be easy to replicate.
But Pitch’s first episode illustrates that its heart, at least, is in the right place. As scripted by Rick Singer and Dan Fogelman (who’s having a great year, between Pitch and NBC’s This Is Us), it gives viewers the big, rousing moments full of excitement and drama, but it also offers plenty of instances of abject disappointment and even defeat. The road to Major League glory isn’t going to be an easy one for anybody, and it’s particularly hard for Ginny, who has to combat all the people who want to see her fail.
So when she finally pulls things together to make the big play, or to strike out that last batter, you don’t feel as if you’re being manipulated — even though you are — because Pitch has expertly created a situation where you want to see her succeed, almost at all costs.
Plus, Fogelman and Singer have a good sense of when to pull back and just let their story and their star do the talking. Yes, there are dramatic moments here and there, but they don’t overload the story with magnificent come-from-behind victories or anything like that. Instead, they focus on the very small wins and losses that come from every showdown between pitcher and batter. Which ties into my final point in this show’s favor.
3) Pitch really captures what makes baseball special
If you’re not a baseball fan, this particular point might be lost on you. If you are a baseball fan, you’ll likely nitpick some of the series’ notions of how the game works. (In particular, I found it a little hard to believe that Ginny could rise so high with just one devastating pitch she uses over and over again, without somebody figuring it out.)
However, what Pitch captures better than other shows about baseball throughout TV history is how much history and national narrative is bound up in one weird little game. Even as baseball in America has faded in significance when compared to football, Singer and Fogelman’s script instantly convinces you that Ginny breaking baseball’s gender barrier would be a huge deal — that baseball would become the center of the universe again for a short time.
The MLB has given its seal of approval to Pitch, so the series shoots frequently at Petco Park — the San Diego home of the Padres, for whom Ginny plays in the series. And series director Paris Barclay, who’s probably best known for his work on Glee and Sons of Anarchy, makes the most of the giant stadium, the screaming fans, the bright, bright lights.
But most of all, Pitch understands a crucial element of all the best baseball stories: This is a sport that fundamentally boils down to a bunch of one-on-one matchups, especially when your protagonist is a pitcher. On its most basic level, television is a long series of two-person scenes, intimate conversations where characters try to get the upper hand on each other. Pitch gives one of them a ball and the other a bat, and then watches to see what happens.
Pitch debuts Thursday at 9 pm Eastern on Fox. It will also be available on Hulu.