Burly Houston Texas defensive end J.J. Watt sporting a black yarmulke at a Jewish funeral and singlehandedly carrying a casket would alone be enough for many football fans to tune in to—and love—tonight’s episode of The League. Thankfully, the rest of the sixth season’s premiere of FX(X)’s rowdy sitcom about a sadistic suburban fantasy football league delivers the crass yet smart comedy that has earned it a well-deserved cult following outside of the bro-y, keg-standing, SportsCenter-after-sex crowd. Even if you don’t know the difference between Cameron Jordan and Jordan Cameron or have no idea what IDP stands for, it was a strong season opener, though the special teams play needs a little work.
In what has become a hallmark for the series, the season premiered with an extended, cameo-filled dream sequence about the fantasy league draft. In the opening scene, Kevin MacArthur, whose gifted wife, Jenny, is also in the league (which constantly makes him feel emasculated), is trying out at the NFL combine as Rich Eisen narrates his paltry performance. In under two minutes, we’re bombarded with an array of famous to not-quite-as-famous NFL stars: Carlos Hyde, Mike Evans, Taylor Lewan, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and there are more to come. The show provides onscreen titles for all these NFL stars, as if subtly looking out for the fans who watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.
And it can’t be stressed enough that this show isn’t about football. OK, it isn’t just about football. Sure, you have to be at least a casual fan to find the humor in Taco’s choice of “Chad Ochocinco of the Montreal Allouettes.” But Pete, Ruxin, Jenny, Kevin, Andre, and (sort of) Taco’s desire to win the Shiva—a crappy, creepy league trophy that simultaneously mocks and objectifies a nerdy Indian high school classmate of the league's participants—is a vehicle for setting up a super high-stakes premise within the seemingly mundane and narrow world of suburban, middle-aged fantasy football. The oxymoronic result is some of television’s best-executed crudity.
Speaking of crudity, the Season Six opener brings back arguably the funniest character with AIDS on TV, Ted (played by The O.C.’s Adam Brody). He’s instantly killed when he’s hit by a car while FaceTiming with the rest of the league—and fans will still be laughing before the commercial break comes. “He’s dead, and his last words were ‘Kevin is the new Andre,’” mourns Kevin, who is irked more by being compared to Andre, the doe-eyed, pinhead who nearly killed his ex-fiancée with his sperm, and is the perpetual butt of the league’s jokes, than the sudden passing of his high school friend.
Ted’s death sets up a perfect framework for the season premiere, which not only includes the usual hijinks but also the team draft. It turns out poor, devastatingly handsome, AIDS-stricken Ted was Jewish. As a result, his family is sitting shiva—a Jewish mourning custom that is spelled the same and sounds almost exactly like the league's beloved trophy/goddess/source of power. From Jenny to Andre, all their faces light up when they hear the term, and as Klezmer music begins playing in the background, you wonder how the writers resisted pulling the shiva-Shiva twist earlier in the series.
Suddenly, Jenny ditches her draft plan to hold an extravagant meal with a special course for every round (which sounded kind of lame, anyways). Instead, they all decide to act as shomers (really, shomerim)—people who guard the Jewish dead before they are buried. But we already know what they’ll really be doing before you see them haul a cooler into the funeral home and prop a draft board on Ted’s casket.
In another series, drafting a fantasy football team by the side of a fallen comrade could be sentimental, even borderline maudlin. But The League never comes close to skewing into this territory because it’s abundantly clear that the draft has less to do with Ted and more about trying to surround themselves with the power of the Shiva. For five seasons, the Shiva has only grown in mythical status and we’ve already seen each member of the league perform assorted rituals surrounding the trophy, the league, and the real-life Shiva to bring good tidings to their fantasy teams.
Taco’s offering of a spliff to the corpse of poor Ted is just one example of how the Season Six premiere takes the series’ crude boorishness to a new level. That seems to be the modus operandi as The League moves closer to the seven-year itch. Where certain characters served as empathetic voices of reason in past seasons, all the characters are operating in a new extreme competition of selfishness.
Taco goes golfing in the cemetery where Ted is about to be buried; Jenny and Kevin start having sex in the morgue (really, dudes, there is a perfectly good car equidistant to the chapel); Ruxin mutters, “I am secretly happy when good-looking people die,” before the rabbi begins Psalm 23. The writers build in justification for the league to be even more dog-eat-dog this season when Ted’s parents reveal that he has bequeathed his Laguna Beach home (also a cheeky O.C. reference) to the winner of this year’s fantasy football league. No wonder their show of respect for the dead is not letting the Jacksonville Jaguars defense be selected as Ted’s third-round pick. But of course, this kind of ridiculousness is why fans love The League.
That being said, there are times in the season premiere when the show walks a fine line between doing what The League does best and feeling a little stale. More than a few moments in this episode feel like déjà vu—and not in the good way of seeing J.J. Watt return for Ted’s funeral (he appeared in the first episode of the fifth season as Ted’s buddy, so it’s not out totally of the blue).
We’ve seen Ruxin screwed over by his own neuroticism and douchebaggery, and we’ve seen real-life NFL stars punish him before. This time it’s Jordan Cameron and Cameron Jordan harassing Ruxin for his mistaken pick at Ted’s funeral. It’s a fun gag for NFL fans, but we’ve seen variations of it. We’ve also seen Andre fall prey to schemes to make him look like an ass in public. His solo flash mob during the mourner’s kaddish prayer should be funnier than it is, but we know it’s coming. We've walked in on Jenny and Kevin in compromising sexual positions before. More specifically, we've seen Jenny have to reassure Kevin about his masculinity—often through sex and often as a result of his poor league performance—and it’s getting to be old hat.
But while The League is repeating certain predictable plays, it’s also aware of its characters’ total descent into churlish, self-obsessed chaos in the quest for the Shiva. Upping the ridiculousness quotient is a gamble, but it looks like it’s mostly working so far for Season Six. When J.J. Watt turns to the league in disgust and asks, “Can you guys not be morons for one day?,” we know the answer is no. But as fans, we’re pretty grateful for it.