'Pitch': TV Review

Pitch Unprecedented Access to the Big Leagues - Kylie Bunbury - Publicity - H 2016
Tommy Garcia/FOX
Not a home run, but the pilot covers extra bases.

Headlined by new star Kylie Bunbury, Fox's baseball drama about a female Major League pitcher makes big plays for emotion.

Confession: When I'm on airplanes, I like to settle into the over-oxygenated air and get weepy over mediocre sports underdog movies. Not the good ones that make anybody with a soul cry, but movies in which square-jawed white coaches teach Southern towns about the evils of racism, or the lesser of two Steve Prefontaine biopics, or the fifth- through tenth-best Kevin Costner jock jams.

From its peak, almost to its nadir, it is a genre to which I am susceptible, but it isn't a genre that TV thrives at. The rare exceptions like Friday Night Lights or Survivor's Remorse are shows to cherish, but most shows about sports succeed by pretending they're not actually shows about sports.

For at least one episode, Fox's new drama Pitch is a series about baseball. Sure, it's also a show about shattering glass ceilings, about the fear and misunderstandings that come when anybody fresh enters an entrenched space and about the courage of going for any goal when the system is stacked against you. But when Major League Baseball is supporting you and the San Diego Padres are letting you use their uniforms and half of the sports journalism establishment is making cameos, it'd be silly to claim athletic agnosticism.

Pitch is the story of Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), who begins the pilot on the morning of her first start in the major leagues. As created by Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer, Ginny isn't a science-fiction or fantasy creation. She didn't recover from a broken arm with tight tendons allowing her to throw an unhittable fastball. Her origin story is just that her controlling father (Michael Beach) groomed her and pushed her and made his dream her dream. Ginny throws in the 80-plus mph range, but the secret of her success is a screwball — really more of a circle change, if we're quibbling — taught by her father, who assumed a so-called gimmick pitch would be the trick to get a woman called up to The Show.

Reactions are varied. The Padres' owner (Bob Balaban) sees Ginny as a gold mine, as does her ambitious agent Amelia (Ali Larter). The team's manager (Dan Lauria as the Joe Torre-esque figure he was born to play) views her as a distraction. All-star catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, hidden behind a bushy beard) is skeptical, but budding star Blip Sanders (Mo McRae) is happy to be reunited with his buddy from the minor leagues. The media, with the likes of Colin Cowherd, Katie Nolan, John Smoltz and Joe Buck playing themselves, bloviate on both sides. And countless little girls hold up signs hailing Ginny as a pioneer.

A lot of your appreciation of Pitch may hinge on whether those inspired girls read as heavy-handed to you or whether they instantly trigger your tear ducts, because the writers and director Paris Barclay are on a mission to make viewers feel things. The pilot is propulsive, putting equal momentum behind hallway walk-and-talks, father-daughter flashbacks and baseball action, all carried along in big part by musical contributions by Kev Marcus and Wil B's Black Violin. You could find the whole thing manipulative, which it absolutely is, but why approach that as a negative? Don't be that guy who pretends that Field of Dreams, in addition to being a classic, isn't one of the most mawkish and manipulative movies ever made. There's also ample humor, much contributed by a rarely better Gosselaar, winking at the convention of the no-nonsense catch/svengali.

Pitch has an admirable sense of scale and not overselling its main plot. Ginny isn't coming up as a budding superstar. She's a fill-in starter who happens to be on the brink of history. The show is fiction, but that starts it in a grounded place. Filming at San Diego's Petco Park, using real teams and Fox Sports camera angles and graphics, Barclay helps Pitch achieve a reasonable amount of authenticity in the key baseball sequences. From well-selected camera angles, Bunbury looks more convincing than most baseball-playing actors not named "Kevin Costner" and the only time her form falters is when Barclay opts for hyper-stylized close-ups that definitely look cool, but also reveal her faulty mechanics.

That's probably the only false note the actress hits in what ought to be a star-making performance. Ginny's in a position of great pressure and Bunbury finds both the confident swagger and the fragility, carrying both traits through her physicality and her line-readings. The camera loves her and spends most of the pilot trained closely on her, but she's also generous when it's time to let Beach or Gosselaar carry a moment. Working in a tried-and-true genre means that lots of the characters come from archetypal places, but I'm already liking the work Lauria, Larter and McRae are doing and I hope for more from Meagan Holder, who plays Blip's wife and Ginny's friend, perhaps the most unexpected and new dynamic in the show.

Like Fogelman's NBC drama This Is Us, the Pitch pilot ends with a twist that doesn't enhance anything and, in fact, made me concerned about how the show might be structured moving forward. There are a lot of stories still to be told and it will be interesting to see how Pitch navigates the pilot-ending twist, an inevitable shift to being "not just about baseball" and the challenges of whether or not future episodes can push as many buttons and push them as effectively as the pilot does.

Cast: Kylie Bunbury, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Ali Larter, Mark Consuelos, Dan Lauria, Mo McRae, Meagan Holder, Tim Jo
Creators: Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer
Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)