Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Making a Pitch for the 'Newest' Show of The New Fall Season

Kylie Bunbury is Throwing Heat. (Warwick Saint/FOX)
This fall, everything old is on TV again.

There's a scaled-down home version of The Exorcist. Lethal Weapon, MacGyver and Van Helsing, too. Michael Weatherly left the No. 1 show on television after 13 seasons – 13 seasons! – only to show up this September with a new drama of his own. (What kind of Bull is that?)

Kiefer Sutherland is back with the job Jack Bauer really wanted, as President of the United States in Designated Survivor. Kevin James, Westworld (with Anthony Hopkins, no less), Sarah Jessica Parker, Frequency, Ted Danson, a show abut going back in time (Timeless) and at least two new series (No Tomorrow, Aftermath) about the end of the world. It's like taking a stroll through the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

That's why, ever since I heard about its coming and its concept, there is one new fall show I've been almost giddy with anticipation to see.

Because I am an absolute fool for baseball.

Because, with a woman running for president for the first time in history, the time and setting are perfect.

Because I'm fascinated to see how the phenomenal executive producer and director, Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue, Sons of Anarchy) and his team can sustain the excitement of the storyline through, say, four episodes.

And because, as far as I can recall, it is unlike any other series ever on television.

The show is called Pitch, about the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, and it premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 22, 2016) on FOX.

It revolves around pitcher Ginny Baker, played by Kylie Bunbury, who has fought her way up the San Diego Padres minor league system to make a spot start for the big club – and set off the kind of media frenzy and public hysteria usually reserved for Royal Weddings.

The day she's scheduled to take the mound, Ellen DeGeneres sends a fruit basket. Hillary wires a congratulatory bouquet. The streets around Petco Park are absolutely jammed with delirious fans. And while all that's entirely fictitious, one of the things I like about Pitch is how it weaves real-life sports notables into the storyline. As Ginny meanders to the clubhouse, she passes by screens showing FOX Sports luminaries (Colin Cowherd, Katie Nolan, Ken Rosenthal) weighing in on her odds of success. (Wonder if they participated willingly?)

It also seems realistic that the sad-sack Padres, who haven't truly approached greatness since my Tigers whupped 'em back in '84, might be the major league franchise most likely to take such a gamble-slash-publicity stunt. And with the full support of MLB, the show resounds with being-at-the-ballpark authenticity. (Wonder if the Padres participated willingly?) 
You Can Buy Lauria (L) as a Manager, but Mark-Paul Gosselaar? (Ray Mickshaw/FOX)

Where the bounds of credibility begin to stretch is with Kylie Bunbury, who is, in a word, stunning. I think it's a masterstroke that producers chose a relative unknown – her FOX bio is just six lines long – for their lead, so we can focus on her present role instead of her resumé.

Word is that Bunbury was cast months before the show went into production so she could learn how to pitch, or at least look like someone who could make it to the majors. However, I might expect a young woman who could throw in the mid-80s (aided by a trick-pitch screwball, the pitch taught her by her father) to have a build more like Hope Solo or Serena Williams than a teen model – which Bunbury once was, in Minnesota.

Obviously, your belief in the possibility of Ginny Baker – wearing No. 43, "one more than Jackie Robinson" – is critical to the success of the series. Like a rookie on the diamond, however, Pitch wisely surrounded their newcomer with an impressive team, a cast of familiar TV players: Bob Balaban as the team owner, Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the requisite crusty Old School manager, Mark Consuelos (Kelly Ripa) as the Padres publicist, and the sumptuous Ali Larter as Ginny's agent.

You'll be fascinated by Michael Beach, another omnipresent actor, as Ginny's stony, unrelenting Sports Dad, obsessed with molding one of his kids into a baseball pro. But I can't get over the casting of Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the team's veteran star catcher, Mike Lawson. Because pitcher and catcher must be two sides of the same brain, he and Ginny are inextricably connected. So your ability to believe in Gosselaar as a perennial All-Star behind the plate is almost as vital to Pitch as seeing Bunbury as a hurler.

The beard he's grown to increase his grizzle quotient didn't help me. If your Gosselaar memory goes back only as far as Franklin & Bash or NYPD Blue, you've got a shot. If you remember him as Zack Morris, good luck.

Ginny knows well her limitations, and her sexist teammates' expectations. "Seventy-five percent of them think I'm the next San Diego Chicken," she sighs. "The other 25 percent just want to see me shower." Yet Pitch clearly intends to take the societal implications surrounding America's first female MLB player far beyond stadium walls.

"This girl is Hillary Clinton with sex appeal," raves Larter's character, Amelia Slater, who says she gave up George Clooney to make Ginny her full-time client. "She's a Kardashian with a skill set. She's the most important woman on the planet right now."

The writing is crisp, witty and topical (there's even a Red Reddington reference on FOX), and a baseball-themed series on the network that's broadcasting this year's World Series can't hurt the show's exposure. It's suspected that when ABC decided to move Scandal to a midseason return, FOX leaped at the possibility Shondaland fans might sample another hour drama with a strong black woman atop the cast.

I think Pitch is going to have trouble hitting a home run, for the same gender-challenged reasons a show like Men of a Certain Age (a personal fave) didn't make it: men aren't going to flock to see a woman play baseball, and most women don't love the game enough to watch.

It's hard to be the first. Much as I love the baseball setting, Bunbury and Gosselaar may make it hard for Pitch to get to first.

On the Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10): 7.5 clicks.