'Pitch' is an intersectional hit. But it's not a home run yet.
Of all the ratings reports from the first official week of the fall TV season, Pitch's may have been the most surprising. Fox's new what-if sports drama, a look at what the first woman in major league baseball might be like, tanked during its Sept. 22 premiere.
The episode drew 4.3 million viewers, making it, as Entertainment Weekly noted, "the second lowest-rated program on a major broadcast network Thursday night." That's not good for any show, much less one in which Fox invested a ton of marketing firepower. They even enlisted Major League Baseball's help.
It's unclear what exactly about Pitch didn't attract audiences. The show is an intersectional feminist dream, not only featuring a woman making her mark in a male-dominated world, but casting a black woman (Kylie Bunbury) to be that first female major league baseball player. For that, Pitch deserves praise, and it deserves a larger audience headed into Thursday night's second episode.
However, the show's ratings are not its only problem. But even with an impressive concept and cast, it's lacking a bit in the execution department — and needs to get better quickly if it has any hope of building an audience.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the premiere episode of Pitch.)
Last Thursday's premiere set up a remarkably simple-yet-groundbreaking story: Ginny Baker is a smart pitcher with a trick screwball up her sleeve who makes headlines when signed by the San Diego Padres. After failing badly in her first game, she gets her groove back and proves she belongs on the mound.
Of course, this being a TV drama in the age of Shonda Rhimes, there's a heart-wrenching twist: Ginny's father (Michael Beach), who she's been talking to all episode, is actually dead, and a figment of her imagination.
As other reviews have noted, a lot of the Pitch story is cliché. It's basically an inspirational sports movie in TV show form. Because the hook — the MLB's first female player — is so unique, Pitch gets away with being pretty formulaic in its first outing. The problem now is that Pitch isn't just one episode. It's burned through most expected story beats in just 42 minutes. What's left to show?
If its limited premise were the only troubling aspect of the show, Pitch would be fine. Many series have evolved beyond their premise. The Good Wife started out being about an Eliot Spitzer-esque scandal before it left that inciting incident behind. Happy Endings fans probably forget that that show was initially about a would-be bride leaving her fiancé at the altar.
Unfortunately, there's more work to be done on Pitch. The twist about Ginny's father is hokey, predictable and way too base for a show with this much promise. If Pitch needs story beats, it's easy to imagine they'll plumb the psychological impact of Ginny's father on her at length. Frankly, it's the most unpleasant part of the premiere to watch; imagining multiple weeks of that is asking for fans to tune out.
Pitch's failings are especially frustrating because it's doing so much right. Take the scene when Ginny gets her jersey, emblazoned with the number 43. It's an intentional nod to Jackie Robinson's iconic 42, and the show lets it sink in for just enough time. It's such a small moment, and yet it works wonders.
Ginny herself is great, seen first as a cipher for so many people's dreams. Slowly over the course of the pilot, those expectations strip away, and we see who she really is. Bunbury plays these layers with great skill, making a fully formed character out of what easily could have been a mess of sports movie tropes. She deals with sexism in her workplace with ease, but never feels fully like the master of her domain. She is the series' heart, and she is why it's so easy to root for.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the show's choice of protagonist offers much opportunity for bold, definitive work. Over at Revelist, writer Evette Dionne wrote about the show's intersectionality as both a challenge and reward. "Is Pitch considering difference as intersectional, rather than singular?" she asked, nothing that the show "definitely should contend with both racism and sexism."
If Pitch can fix its problems, grow its audience and get a second season, it has the chance to do much more than be a hit TV show. It has the opportunity to be a grand slam — the kind of show that so uniquely speaks to its time period, and does so beautifully. Can it accomplish that? Maybe not. But it'd be foolish to bet against a character like Ginny. Just when you've counted her out, she gets back in the game.
The next episode of Pitch airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on Fox.