The early-to-mid-90s were populated with family sports comedies about outcast children finding a team where they fit because of a nice coach. The parents were separated by simple characteristics. If a parent pushed a kid, that parent was the villain. Every other parent supported his or her child unconditionally. By the end of the movie, the villainous parent would stop being villainous and recognize his or her child beyond that child's athletic ability. These movies were set in small towns, suburban or rural. The communities were tight-knight, the families nuclear, and the single parents actively becoming coupled with the help of the team. In the rare story where the single parent did not find coupling, the single parent's defined and celebrated by singledom, by devotion and love and care for the child/children.
Back in the Game feels like an homage to those movies--The Big Green and the Little Giants, to name two of the family sports comedies that embraced the outcast and elevated the single parent. Terry, portrayed by Maggie Lawson, is a single mom trying to do right by her son while battling her conflicting emotions about her father, "The Cannon," portrayed by James Caan. Terry tells a new friend her father 'crippled her' emotionally growing up. The Cannon took Terry through Mexico while he coached, abandoned her, cheated on her mother, but she's living with him because her own life hasn't been the stuff of domestic dreams. She's sorting through her issues with her dad as she raises her son, who's in the heater that is middle school. Terry wants her son to have a childhood, to have a present parent, and to do what he wants to do with his life. Danny, her son, wants to play baseball because a girl he likes likes baseball players. But when he doesn't make the team, Terry decides to create her own team for her son's sake and for the other unwanted boys. Michelle Lawson is the Rick Moranis of the 2010s, or, rather, a grown-up Ice Box had the Rick Moranis character gone down the wrong path after beating his brother in the Big Game.
The Cannon's the type of character a parent hears about at a little league game, the type of character one thinks exists mostly in fictional television. The Cannon doesn't endear himself to Michelle during the episode. He's the type to whip his junk out at games to win a fight--he's like an older Randy Marsh. Terry's bothered by The Cannon's scrutiny over her son's ability to play baseball. Danny's a great character, witty, fearless, but he's bad on the baseball field. He's the type of kid who'll kiss a bully to make the bully uncomfortable. He's an idealized modern kid, able to handle disappointments from within school with poise and grace. Terry doesn't need to worry, because the kid is aces. Terry mostly projects due to her bad childhood.
Danny, in fact, the perfect kid to lead the new little league team Terry's able to start after beating Mean Dad in a bat-off. Mean Dad criticizes her son and demeans women in a playful, sitcomy, broad way. The little league team is populated by the most cliche boys: the 'fat' kid, the twins, the foreigner, the effeminate boy, etc. None of the boys can field a ground ball without injuring themselves. Terry watches the hijinx of uncoordinated children with her face in scrunched concern. The practice sequence is like the first act of any underdog family sports comedy where the coach wonders what he or she got him or her self into.
The other emotional storyline of the series, the relationship between father and daughter, is nicely written. James Caan's a veteran of acting. Maggie Lawson's very adept at conveying Terry's past without that past dominating her character's arc. Lawson helps the character feel more formed, e.g. how she conveys vulnerability and toughness effortlessly. (I won't refer to the specific scene Lawson shined most bright, but you'll know it when you see it.)
I think Back in the Game is promising. The sports element is fun and a throwback to the mid-90s. James Caan and Maggie Lawson work well together. Their characters have a substantive story that's light-hearted and emotional. The middle school element's well-drawn. Danny's pretty great. One of my adages is good characters (and especially great characters) make ordinary shows better. Back in the Game is ordinary, but the characters stand-out. That's enough.