Home > Pop Culture, TV > Sports Night: Revisited – The first in an occasional series

Sports Night: Revisited – The first in an occasional series

One of the highlights of my dull and dispiriting summer of 2001 was falling for Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. I can’t remember if I watched the show during its initial two-season run on ABC in 1998-2000, but it didn’t make an impression on me until I began watching the endless midday repeats on Comedy Central during those barren weeks spent at home from college.

I feel like the show is often dismissed these days when it’s thought of at all. It’s either overshadowed by Sorkin’s far more successful (and superior) follow-up The West Wing, or pointed to as the first warning sign of the faults and excesses his detractors would come to loathe. So since I’ve been meaning to try my hand at television criticism for some time, I figured I would revisit one of my old favorites with a more critical eye.

I’ll be working through the 45-episode series in blocks of three or four episodes at a time, grouping them by story arcs as much as possible, but primarily focusing on a couple of overarching themes. I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping plots or identifying major characters except when necessary, but I’ll try to make the discussions accessible to anyone with at least a surface knowledge of the show.

Finally, a style note: In order to distinguish between the show we’re watching from the eponymous show-within-the-show the characters are producing, I’ll refer to the former in the traditional mode of italics, Sports Night, and the latter in plain text, Sports Night.

With that in mind, off we go. One fan’s reappraisal of Sports Night, ten years later, beginning at the beginning:

Season 1, Episodes 1-4: “Pilot,” “The Apology,” “The Hungry & The Hunted,” Intellectual Property.” 

Unsurprisingly, the early episodes are uneven. They’re the work of a writer with an unshakable faith in his voice and an uncertain grasp on the sitcom format, and the strengths and weaknesses of these episodes reflect that tension. Sorkin’s peccadilloes are everywhere: super-charged dialogue, overlapping conversational topics, SAT-question-esque non sequiturs (e.g., the geographical location of Helsinki).

Sorkin’s dialogue has always been his calling card, and the thing that tends to inspire the greatest delight in devotees and disgust in detractors. If I, like, Sorkin, enjoyed throwing around Latin phrases for the hell of it (and I do), I’d call it the sine qua non of his work. It’s true that every protagonist in his world is hyper-intelligent, and advertises that fact by uttering roughly 77 syllables a second. The extent to which this attracts or annoys you as a viewer depends on how willing you are to suspend disbelief in natural dialogue in favor of enjoying the flow of language. This generally worked for me on Sports Night (as it did on The West Wing), because I share that fondness for language and supersaturated wit.

But in these early episodes, he doesn’t have a firm handle on it yet. Several times I was jarred out of the story by a patch of dialogue that runs on for no good reason other than to force a joke, or fill out the 22 minutes. Take this exchange from the pilot:

“I’ve met him, he’s a good guy.”

“Can’t kick.”

“He is a good guy.”

“Can’t kick.”

“He’ll get picked up by another team.”

“No he won’t. Y’know why?”

“Why?”

“Because he can’t kick.”

That structure of call-and-response conversation, where the punchline hits on the third repetition of a phrase, occurs at least once per episode. It’s an effort to merge Sorkin’s signature rhythms with echoes of sitcom traditionalism, and it sort of fails as either.

It’s also an example of the the glaring flaw of Sports Night, and Sorkin in general: the inescapable sense of a writer so in love with his words that he lets them run roughshod over every other story element. (This habit, it should be said, is tempered as the show matures, but never fades completely.) It’s somehow fitting that the character to whom this tendency does the greatest disservice in the early going is the Sorkin analogue, Jeremy Goodwin.

When we first meet Jeremy, he’s delivering the world’s worst job interview. As written by Sorkin and played by Joshua Malina, this scene establishes a version of the character that would thankfully not survive long past episode three. He’s a powder keg of manic insecurity, exploding the comedic potential of new-kid-in-town anxieties into a cartoonish half-competence that defies all suspension of disbelief. Everything about the job interview scene rings false. It takes place in the middle of an open-space newsroom (rather than an office or conference room) for no apparent reason. The answer he gives to his one (one!) fairly easy question, which gets him hired on the spot, reflects barely a surface-level knowledge of basketball. The centerpiece of the scene is a hysterical monologue by Jeremy that would get any job candidate summarily thrown out on his ass, in particular a candidate for a high pressure job in live television.

No one’s asking for a prime time sitcom to depict a calm and sober job interview, but the scene, and the characterization, are completely out of place in a show that wants to be faithful to the behind-the-scenes world it depicts. Another example: in “The Apology,” the B-story involves Jeremy cutting his first highlight package, which winds up running eight and a half minutes. It leads to some humorous exchanges between Jeremy and Casey, but it’s heads-slappingly implausible that anyone who claims to understand sports television would submit that package to his boss, or that the show would tolerate that level of naivete even from a new employee.

Every sitcom has to decide on its own balance between “believable” and “funny,” and there’s a great debate among television critics around which matters more and how much of one can be sacrificed for the other. I’m willing to tolerate quite a bit of implausibility in a comedy if generates funny material. At the time I first watched Sports Night, even this level of outlandishness didn’t bother me because it made me laugh (and because 20-year-olds don’t think too hard about much of anything). Rewatching it, I have mixed feelings; the interview scene makes me cringe from beginning to end, but the highlight reel bit still amuses me, maybe because it’s played at a much lower key and, again, allows some funny lines.

By the standards Sports Night set for itself, though, plausibility is paramount. The cold open of the pilot episode throws us into a production studio with jargon flying in every direction – right from the outset, this is a show that wants you to believe it’s a faithful dramatization of a very specific professional world. If NewsRadio, by contrast, never took pains to capture the world of its title subject, it’s because the particular work environment of that show was entirely secondary to the wacky goings-on. But the milieu of Sports Night was central to its identity. If your show is going to boast about its verisimilitude, you write comedy bits that strain credulity at your own peril.

The A-story in “The Hungry & The Hunted” rights the ship. Centering on Jeremy’s initiation into the Sports Night family, it’s meant to mark a turning point for the character. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also when both Sorkin’s writing and Malina’s performance begin to ditch the bumbling characterization for a more subdued (and eventually even self-assured) nebbishness. Maybe that’s what Sorkin had in mind for his on-screen counterpart all along, but it could be a recognition that the character wasn’t working and needed retooling.

The story, and the exchange between Jeremy and Isaac in which it culminates, is much more convincing and compelling in showing the professional anxiety that’s been driving Jeremy. It also gives us a nice example of another Sorkinism which always strikes a chord for me: the expression of loyalty among misfits. When Jeremy declares that “not fitting in is how qualified people lose jobs,” Isaac counters, “But a lot of the time, it’s how they wind up here.”

The other major character poorly served by these first four episodes is Jeremy’s future paramour, Natalie Hurley. Sabrina Lloyd turns in many charming moments in the role as the series progresses, but here in this opening stretch she get absolutely nothing to do. Though supposedly the second-in-command at Sports Night, she mostly flits about like a wired teeny-bopper. She gushes effusively about her crush on Jeremy, schemes to set up Dana and Casey against their wills, and generally makes a pest of herself.

Her primary function in these pursuits, in fact, seems to be tell the audience how to feel about other characters. In the pilot, she preemptively dismisses Jeremy’s hyperbolic performance anxiety as “intense.” And in “Intellectual Property,” she all but informs us that we’re going to care about the Dana/Casey pairing, like it or not:

Dana: “From, like, the second Casey and Lisa split up, everyone in this office is convinced that I have a strategy for getting Casey to fall in love with me.

“Natalie: “You’re wrong. We knew you didn’t have a strategy and we’re glad you’ve finally come up with something.”

Since none of the 10 other recurring characters on this show have expressed any inkling of interest in Dana and Casey’s love life, who exactly are they referring to? If Natalie’s use of “we” is meant to extend to the audience, she’s sadly mistaken.

“Intellectual Property” kicks off the “will they or won’t they” storyline in earnest, with Natalie nattering about Dana’s subconscious desires and Casey inexplicably becoming a high-strung clod. From the start it feels obligatory and grafted on, maybe because ABC insisted that every workplace comedy needs a Sam-and-Diane dynamic to keep viewers interested, maybe because Sorkin genuinely thought it was a necessary ingredient in the sitcom formula. Whyever it’s there, it’s consistently the source of Sports Night‘s low points. The forced and uninteresting beginning pretty much sets the tone for the relationship throughout (about which I’ll have more to say in later installments, as this storyline takes center stage).

With all that said, a few key elements do click right away. The six leads have comedic chops and establish a rapport that survives the clumsier patches of dialogue. Robert Guillaume is always a welcome presence on my television. The inevitable lefty political moralizing is here, but isn’t terribly overbearing; in particular, the discussion of drug use in “The Apology” is rather deftly handled, driving and driven by a very strong piece of character work for Josh Charles’s Dan Rydell.

It’s hard to recall the time when Sorkin’s idiosyncrasies were fresh and distinctive rather than their own species of TV trope. But if nothing else, in the earliest days of Sports Night it was clear that the man knew how to write a joke. Through the first four episodes of a sitcom, that’s enough to keep you watching.

***

Like I said, I’m a fan, so I plan to end each of these posts with a highlight reel:

  • “Yup. Finland. The national bird is the whooping swan.”
  • Natalie: “Shot of bourbon?” Jeremy: “Please.”
  • Casey: “There is this perception in the press, never more clear than in this article, that I’m not cool. Where do you think this perception comes from?” Dana: “I think it comes from reality.”
  • Jeremy: “We have an opportunity to affect their appreciation of baseball!” Casey: “God knows you’ve affected mine.”
  • Casey: “Help me be cool again.” Dan: “First I’d have to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before.”
  • Casey: “Is it your belief that Elvis Costello isn’t cool?” Dan: “No, it’s my belief that the Grammy voters aren’t cool.”
  • “I don’t care if he’s got the wind at his back and a song in his heart, he hasn’t got the leg.”
  • “You have to imagine, Danny, how much I don’t give a damn about blown spume.”
  • “October the eighth, nineteen-hundred and ninety-eight, A.D. A.D. They’re worried I might accidentally show up two thousand years before the birth of Christ.”
  • “At this point, the length of this conversation is way out of proportion to my interest in it.”
  • The only two Gordons Dan and Casey can think of are Lightfoot and Liddy. Ah, those innocent days before America was attuned to the existence of Gordon Ramsay.
  • Dana: “Does the fly have any other special powers?” Casey: “No. Well, Jeremy thinks it might have some sort of stealth capability.”
  • Natalie: “They were meant for each other!” Jeremy: “The inside and outside linebacker?”
  • Did you know there’s a copyright on “Happy Birthday?” And that it took two people to write that song? Now you do. And knowing is half the battle.

And, since I believe there will be enough of these to deserve their own postscript, Isaac Jaffe’s Pearls of Wisdom:

  • “It’s because I love you that I can say this: No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks.”
  • “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
  • “You fit in on your own time. When you come to work for me, you show up to play.”


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Categories: Pop Culture, TV
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