2016 in Review: How Pitch Beat the Odds and Became the Year’s Best New Show

Who doesn’t love a good sports movie?

They’re predictable, trite and cheesy as can be, but when everything clicks it’s hard to find a genre that can compete with sports films. An underdog team coming from nowhere to win the championship, the scrawny nobody challenging the undefeated belt-holder, a last second hail-mary to win it all. It doesn’t get much better than that, right? From Rocky to Hoosiers to Miracle to The Sandlot, some of the best movies of all time are corny, cheesy, predictable sports films.

As easy as the sports movie formula is to predict, it’s incredibly tricky one to replicate. Every sports movie is a small misstep away from having audiences rolling their eyes at the corny, cheesy, predictability of it all. More so than any other genre, sports films are often a zero sum game: Either the movie is great, or it’s a cringe inducing mess, with little-to-no in between.

This fall, Pitch attempted to take the sports movie formula and replicate it on the small screen. A move that came with a whole host of problems, any one of which could’ve brought down the show single-handedly. However, in its 10 episode first season, Pitch deftly navigated the genre’s tropes and delivered one of the most impressive freshman runs in recent TV history.

Pitch follows Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbary), the first female athlete to compete in a major American sports league. The show starts when Ginny is called up to pitch for the San Diego Padres, and follows her journey as she breaks barriers to find a place in a world that wasn’t designed for her.

Pitch had, by far, the best pilot of the fall. The 45-minute premiere is exhilarating, funny, and emotional all at once. The episode’s excellence starts from the very first frame, where we see letters from Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres among others, filling up Ginny’s room. From there, it moves to a top-notch opening sequence featuring famous FOX sportscasters telling the story of Ginny’s rise to the majors as she rides to the stadium surrounded by adoring fans. In the first few minutes, the stakes and the pressure facing Ginny are abundantly clear.

There’s no slowdown in quality as the episode goes on. Every story beat is hit with the same precision and grace. Is it formulaic? Absolutely. But this genre isn’t one particularly reliant on originality. People want their hero to defy the odds and do the impossible. In other words, they want to see Ginny succeed. Pitch didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, all the pilot episode needed to do was get the car moving.

Take this scene, where Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselar who, I should mention, is unbelievably good on the show) visits Ginny at the mound. Even he has to admit the whole thing is a little predictable, saying “This is the part of the movie where I give the big speech.” Before he, obviously, gives the big speech.

The sports formula could only take Pitch so far though. A movie ends once the hero reigns supreme. TV, on the other hand, has to keep going. The happy ending works because of the emotional victory that the audience gets at the end. People watch these stories to see the team win, that’s what makes sports films different than watching actual sports. In the pilot episode, Ginny and company get a huge win. But getting that first win was never the real challenge, delivering similar victories in episodes 2-10, that’s the hard part.

There’s a reason that most sports films don’t have sequels. Once the hero gets to the mountain top, creating an interesting story is incredibly difficult to pull off. After all, the story of someone who is supposed to succeed, actually succeeding, isn’t very exciting. Look at Rocky, for example. Each sequel needed to up the stakes in order to be successful, give Rocky a new set of stairs to climb, if you will. If Balboa kept fighting the same battles, climbing up the same set of stairs, it wouldn’t be interesting because eventually we’d expect him to win. We know he can do that, watching him climb the same stairs as before isn’t interesting. That’s why the stakes needed to be raised with each movie.

Those stakes got absurd in a hurry, he ended up fighting freaking the cold war inside the ring. And there are only 6 Rocky Films (7 counting Creed, which resets the stakes rather than escalating them). Pitch needed the ability to tell tens, potentially even hundreds, of stories. In order to do that, they needed to tinker with the formula. 

pitch3

What did they do? Well, I’m glad you asked. Pitch took a two-pronged approach to the problem.

First, the writers smartly crafted sports storylines that are relatively low stakes, especially when compared to the show’s feature-length counterparts. In most sports films, the team is contending for the championship, usually against crazy-long odds. The same cannot be said for Ginny Baker’s San Diego Padres. The Padres, on the show at least, are a pretty average baseball team. Sure, there’s talk of a run for the world series here and there, but just qualifying for the playoffs would probably count as a successful season for Ginny and company.

pitch2Putting world series rings in the distant horizon allowed Pitch’s creative team to swap stories of championship runs for smaller, more self contained, plotlines better suited for TV. A great example of this comes from the show’s third episode, which focuses on Ginny’s first beanball battle. The episode, appropriately titled “Beanball,” is the show’s best outing of a very solid first season. It’s a hyper-focused episode with clear stakes, surprising twists and, most importantly, a payoff that feels both earned and satisfying.

“Beanball” takes place during a single regular season game, the result of which won’t have much impact on the Padres’ championship hopes. Yet for viewers the stakes seem incredibly consequential, so Ginny and company’s eventual win seems like a big step forward, even though big picture it means almost nothing. “Beanball” manages to give viewers the same emotional win as a typical sports film ending would, without jeopardizing the show’s longevity in the process.

pitch4Of course, episodes like that can’t be the norm. Eventually, audiences will figure out a show is treading water and grow impatient (*cough* Episodes 3-7 of every season of Game Of Thrones *cough*). That brings us to Pitch’s second solution: Shifting the stakes from what takes place on the field to what happens off of it.

Plenty of shows have done this successfully before, Friday Night Lights probably being the best example. In terms of translating sports stories to the small screen, FNL is the gold standard. I mean, you could make an argument for FNL being one of the greatest series ever made, regardless of genre.

fnlPitch faces a much tougher challenge than FNL did though. Friday Night Lights was never really about football. Sure, they played football, but not every story had to connect back to the sport. Football was always more of a setting rather than a central theme, especially as the show moved forward after the initial few episodes. Conversely, Pitch is about baseball, every single story connects back to the sport in some way. The show’s characters are professional baseball players, not high school students and coaches. That means that during the season everything is about baseball. So the challenge facing Pitch was how to create emotionally satisfying stories for its characters that exist independent of what happens on the field, but that still circle back to baseball in some way.

It goes without saying, but for the sake of this transition I’m going to do it anyway, striking that balance is incredibly tricky, especially for a brand new show. Pitch was never going to bat a perfect 1.000 right out of the gate, but the show is doing far better than anyone could’ve expected. More promising still is that even when the show does make a false move, more often than not, the writers have deftly course-corrected as the story continued.

pitch-ep106_sc24-rm_0121_hires1At the end of “Beanball,” Ginny’s ex boyfriend reveals that he’s been hacked and some *ahem* sensitive photos of her could be made public. It’s an eye-roll of a plot twist, and one that could potentially derail the show. Having Ginny spend any amount of time worrying about photos of her had the ability to undermine her, and the show’s, empowering message. I understood the appeal of trying to comment on the issue, but for a show about a strong African American female character breaking down barriers, it seemed like a step backward. Thankfully, for the next two episodes, Pitch all-but ignores this potential bombshell and continued to deliver stellar-to-fantastic shows every week.  

Eventually, the storyline does resurface. Instead of taking the show backward, Pitch used it to shoehorn a two-episode deep-dive into the psychology of its lead characters. Both “Wear It” and “San Francisco” take place primarily outside of the baseball field, but the focus is still very much on America’s pastime.  

pitch5Wear It” attacks the psychological toll being the first female athlete in a major pro sport is taking on Ginny. Every person has a breaking point, and in this episode Ginny finds her’s. She has panic attacks, ditches her own Nike launch event to get drunk with complete strangers, and admits the pressure of her job is getting the best of her. Just as Ginny hits rock bottom, and looks prepared crawl her way out, the photos leak.

You could clearly see where this storyline was going: Throw Ginny into disarray and embarrassment, have the photos dominate locker room conversation, only for Mike to defend her with a rousing speech before she goes out and defiantly pitches for a win. It’s a fine resolution, but one that would’ve felt repetitive, never a good sign for a show less than 8 episodes into its run. Fortunately, “San Francisco” takes things in another direction.

As Ginny’s story is forced into a limbo period due to the impending release of the photos, Mike Lawson takes center stage in “San Francisco”. I mentioned how good Mark-Paul Gosselaar is on this show before, but it’s worth repeating. He is exceptionally good, so much better than he has any right to be, honestly. He probably won’t win any, but Gosselaar is delivering Emmy level work on this show week-in and week-out. This scene, in particular, deserves multiple awards.

“San Francisco” sheds light on Mike Lawson’s backstory as he comes to terms with the fact that his career is nearing it’s end. He’s getting older, his body isn’t holding up like it used to, and to make matters worse the Padres just signed a hotshot catcher hell-bent on replacing Lawson in the lineup. The episode is a slow burn on the realization that sometimes, even the most talented athletes, have to admit defeat. For Mike, that means accepting a playing first base rather than catcher to preserve his career. Even more importantly, for Ginny it means taking ownership and finding a way out of the no-win scenario of her pictures.

At the end of “San Francisco,” Ginny’s agent Emilia (A tolerable, for once, Ali Larter) books her to pose for ESPN The Magazine’s yearly “Body Issue,” which features athletes posing nude to showcase the frankly awe-inspiring physique of professional athletes. For Ginny though, it represents a chance to take ownership of her body. For the show, it represents a chance to give the Padres, and Ginny, a win without setting foot on a baseball field.

The nude photo leak could’ve derailed Pitch, but instead the show rose to the occasion and delivered a message of equality and self-confidence, without feeling preachy or condescending. Most importantly, the ending gave audiences the feeling of a championship-winning buzzer beater while allowing Pitch to come back and do it all again next week.

Now that the show’s first season is over, all I can do is hope they get a chance to…

2016 has been an incredible year for new TV (Superstore, The Good Place, Atlanta, Westworld, This Is Us all premiered this year, just to name a few). But for me, Pitch rose above the pack. The show translated the sports film formula to the small screen with ease, entertaining audiences for ten cheesy, predictable, absolutely fantastic episodes. I laughed (“Two little black boys eating Sushi, Ginny!”), I cried (Lawson’s farewell game, are you freaking kidding me?!), and I cheered (Out loud at times, much to the chagrin of my roommates).  

If this is it, Pitch had one of the best freshman runs of any show I can remember. One that I will rewatch and share with friends for years to come. But if FOX decides to give Ginny and company another at bat, I’d be the first in line to renew my season tickets.

The complete first season of Pitch is available on Hulu.

Be on the lookout for more 2016 in review content in the next few weeks, including my annual Best TV Episodes of the year list.

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