“The League” Tackles AIDS Jealousy. “Full Blownsies”

leagueThe League airs on FXX

In March, we wrote about television’s lack of appetite for characters dealing with HIV infection. Those that had tackled the subject were mostly heavy dramas like ER or Brothers & Sisters, or gay-centric, like Queer As Folk.

So when I read that the FXX series The League, an unapologetically crude comedy, was introducing a character with HIV, I took notice. The League revolves around some vile guys who hold an annual fantasy football league together. They treat each other horribly, insult the smallest thing brutally and without taste, and generally display behavior towards their friends that wouldn’t be tolerated on Big Brother. I braced myself for the worst.

In the recent Season 5 opener Adam Brody shows up as “Ted”, the previously mentioned but never seen California member of the fantasy league. He lives in California, is rich and obnoxious. He won last year’s league, and so decrees that the draft for the new season will be held in California, which is convenient since the other league members were all going to California anyway for the wedding of Andre (Paul Scheer) to Trixie (Jayma Mays, who should fire her agent).

tedchampagneThis may be the first AIDS diagnosis announcement to be toasted with champagne

Upon arrival, big shot Ted greets the league in the lobby and after the guys all remark on how good he looks he confesses, matter-of-factly, that he has AIDS. Not simply HIV, but AIDS.

The group stands shocked, some apologize. I actually grinned when one reaction was “Full blownsies.”?  Ted waives it off, says he feels great, he’s the same Ted, he takes his meds and there are no worries.

A toast is made, “To AIDS!” which oddly feels like it’s to diffuse the room. As everyone swigs their champagne, he smiles and says “I drank out of all those glasses.” A few hesitate, one spits out the champagne before he declares it a joke. I’d have hesitated the same way if someone told me they had the flu and drank from my glasses.

The AIDS diagnosis is only really touched on a couple times for the rest of the show, and then only mined for laughs. Once when a particularly dumb friend decides the success Ted is experiencing in life and the league must be because his HIV cocktail makes him smart. The dumb friend then swallows a day’s worth of Ted’s pills and gets explosive diarrhea.

Meanwhile, Ted is shown to be quite the practical joker. He pretends to cut himself and smear fake blood on the ball during a beach volleyball match.

tedbloodhandIt’s not a bad joke

This isn’t highbrow stuff. But then again the show itself is pretty base and crude. Ted’s diagnosis isn’t really integral to the story, so  why give him AIDS? According to producer Jackie Marcus Schaffer it came from needing to explain Ted’s remoteness, and his success. Plus she saw a news report about Magic Johnson, who is dapper, successful, and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers decades after his diagnosis. Fellow producer Jeff Schaffer is quick to addThis isn’t a pity story; it’s a jealousy story. We get to play with something you usually don’t see a lot in comedy—people’s discomfort around AIDS and someone who has AIDS, all of the miseducation about how you get it, and when it’s contagious, and all that kind of stuff. But that comedy only lasts for a beat. Then the real fun for us was that these guys are jealous of him. They’re jealous of his AIDS. They’re jealous of his life. As Kevin says, ‘Full-blown Ted has a better life than I do. I want to be like that guy. I want to be the guy with AIDS.’”

I find this approach sort of refreshing. When characters on television are given HIV you generally get force fed the humanity of the disease (you pretty much get that in real life as well when you tell people, too). Here, despite the characters being horrible examples of humanity, they accept when their friend says he’s fine, and move on to their own pressing matters. It doesn’t impact Ted’s place in the group, or the dynamic. They’re so obsessed with their silly fantasy league that they aren’t bothered by their friend having AIDS if he isn’t bothered by it. And he isn’t. It may not be realistic, but it fits these characters.

I’m often the first person to bristle when there’s AIDS comedy out there. There’s honestly precious little of it outside animation on television. Family Guy got it right once, while Brickleberry bombed miserably. But here one of the most stomach turning shows I’ve ever had the displeasure to sit through managed to slip a good portrayal right down the middle. Good job.

The League airs Wednesdays on FXX at 10:30pm

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