Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Science fiction is about more than just phenomena like time travel or extraterrestrials—it's about changing the variables of our reality. “Pitch,” a new series from FOX about the first female professional baseball player has the genre’s air of “what if?” throughout. Focusing on a wide scale that includes a baseball team (and its money men), the hungry media and the player herself, “Pitch” places the viewer into an easily-imagined phenomenon. Judged only by tonight's first episode, "Pitch" proves to be fascinating and timely.
“Pitch” takes place on a world-changing day. Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) has been signed by the San Diego Padres after spending her time in the minor league, working her way up like any other player. It’s a historical game for ticket sales, and people in the ball club, including her manager, fellow teammates and onlookers, who aren’t all convinced she has what it takes. The media hype plays a huge part, encapsulating her in a narrative where she could be seen as a hero to some and a gimmick to others. But Ginny, captured in an opening one-take walking tall while listening to giant red headphones walking through her frenzy, tries to remain focused. She has flashbacks to her training with her father (Michael Beach), who realized decades ago that she had the potential to play baseball with the boys. In a very emotional scene, he recognizes the biological differences between a man’s throwing arm and that of a woman's, but teaches his young daughter a pitch that becomes her signature, and eventually her ticket to sports history.
In a great conflict for this gripping pilot directed by Paris Barclay, Ginny's first game does not go how any correctly-minded person would wish. With the episode's handful of Hillary Clinton references ringing throughout (she’s “Hillary Clinton with sex appeal,” Ali Larter’s sharp publicist character says), “Pitch” asks audiences in 2016 about the right way to achieve progress. When representation of an entire gender and the possibility to advance how the world sees a powerful job becomes more possible than ever, how much should gender factor into supporting someone like Ginny, or even Clinton? Other pertinent questions abound too, regarding gender equality in overtly-masculine work places, with the locker room providing a stressful environment every time Ginny is in there with her teammates. Even Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s butt-patting team captain offers a strange point: To what grounds would a normally macho butt pat be harassment in the case with Ginny, especially if it's possibly a gesture of acceptance?
The series is often about what is going on around Ginny, but Bunbury offers the series a very strong core. Whether on the mound or isolated in her hotel room, she conveys the palpable sense of pressure and search for composure, and how a regular human being could become a type of messiah. With little gameplay happening in the pilot, “Pitch” gets us inside her head, leaving great promise for more revelatory moments as the show goes on.
And then, “Pitch” co-creator and third act twist-addict, Dan Fogelman, does it again. He had a horrible gotcha moment in his NBC pilot “This Is Us,” which I reviewed a couple days ago. And even though this pilot is much better, the twist is worse. I won’t spoil it but I think it will piss people off, and not just for how he again creates a surprise that has nothing to do with the characters, only the narrative’s manipulation of its audience. Essentially, after all of "Pitch'"s debate about true strength, co-creators/co-writers Fogelman & Rick Singer believe the story should be treated with some magic, which is exactly what this representation does not need to be taken as believable. It’s unclear as to how much this element will factor in later episodes, but it panders like a handicap, both to Ginny as a character and to this story’s representation of a woman of color trying to make history. It’s worse enough that this pilot feels like science fiction, and will probably be that way for at least another decade. But the best parts of “Pitch” prove that we don’t have to settle for fantasy.