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Time of the Season: S1-2 of Sports Night (’98-’00)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 15, 2007

“And I finally get Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night! It’s a comedy that’s too good to be funny!

If there was one way to make the abortive run of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip seem even more disappointing, it’s a reviewing of Aaron Sorkin’s similarly short-lived but far more cult-endearing debut series, Sports Night. The similarities are truly astounding–not just in terms of being about the behind-the-scenes workings of a serialized TV show, but in almost all the character types (especially the two male bffs at the creative center, one coming out of a bad breakup and one with deep-seated psychological issues) and, of course, the rapid-fire dialogue, presented in Sorkin’s now trademark and cliched format of choice, the walk-and-talk. And, unsurprisingly, it even shares pretty much all the strenghts and weaknesses of Studio 60, and there are indeed many of both.

The show’s basic premise is of an ESPN-esque station, CSC (Continental Sports Channel), and its Sportscenter-like flagship program, Sports Night, hosted by Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause). Keeping them afloat in the studio are executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), station head Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume), and assistant producers Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) and Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina). The show, which ranks a solid but unextroardinary third in the ratings, is constantly under pressure from internal and external sources, and by the end of season two, CSC is put on the market, possibly putting the future of Sports Night and all its involved parties in jeopardy.

If film’s auteur theory could be applied to television’s writers and producers, then Aaron Sorkin would undoubtedly be the primary example. Two seconds of this show and you know exactly who’s behind it–not just in the dialogue’s speed and presentation, but in its constantly repeating patterns, and the characters’ unfailing and stupifyingly obvious tendencies to say the exact opposite of the way they actually feel and act. Studio 60‘s dialogue fell into the same traps almost instantly, and had it lasted for the two seasons Sports Night runs, it almost certainly would’ve become as grating as Sports Night‘s eventually gets. There’s definitely some comfort in being able to map out the entire arc of an episode from its first few minutes of dialogue, but watch enough episodes in a row and you’ll be praying for a hail storm or some other meteorological phenomenon to whip through the CSS studios and actually cause a little unforseeable drama.

That said, it’s hard to find too much fault with a show as tight-knit as Sports Night. The dialogue, if unbearably cyclical, is always engaging, and the cast is uniformly strong, as evidenced by the near across-the-board leap to greater TV success the show’s actors would have after the show’s demise (Krause to Six Feet Under, Huffman to Desperate Housewives, Malina to Sorkin’s own West Wing). The article’s lead-in quote, an acid-induced observation from Family Guy that for many serves as the show’s only real contemporary pop culture reference point, is fairly on point–the show rarely induces above a chuckle, but by the end of the pilot, you’re not really even expecting it to, and that’s OK–Sports Night doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t.

Speaking of pilots, if there’s one thing that Sorkin really knows how to do, it’s how to bookend a series. I’ve only seen two episodes of West Wing that I remember in my life, the first and the last, and they were so good–the premiere so perfect at breakneck-speed plot exposition, introduction of main characters and beginning of important theme, and the finale so heartbreaking in its wrapping up of characters and plotlines, and in its general sense of finality and moving on–that it didn’t matter at all that I never bothered to see any of the episodes in between, and now I’m not sure that I’d even want to. I knew this was as good as the show had the potential to be.

Needless to say, Sports Night has a similarly thrilling pilot, and a similarly emotional farewell. It’s the latter that really comes as something of a shock–one of the only ones you’ll find in the series–since, with the exception of some darker stuff uncovered in Danny’s dalliances with a professional psychiatrist, the show had generally kept its emotional content strictly on the lighter side. But by the end of the series, when you’re legitimately unsure whether Sports Night will be sticking around, it’s some uncharted territory for the show and its characters, added to by the brilliance of Dana’s last-minute interactions with the show’s greatest one-off character, known only as The Stranger (classic That Guy, Clark Gregg)–episodes which should have garnered at least Emmy nominations for Huffman and Gregg.

Similar to the post-mortem offers rumored to be on the table for Arrested Development after FOX decided not to stick with the show, Sports Night could have had a future on any number of cable and pay channels had Sorkin decided to stick with the show. However, he decided to instead proceed with The West Wing, a wise choice which garnered him far more commercial and critical success than Sports Night was ever really capable of. Basically, Sports Night ends up a series that deserved just about everything it got–two full seasons, limited mass success but a devoted cult following–and nothing more. Can’t argue with that.

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3 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1-2 of Sports Night (’98-’00)”

  1. David said

    I’ve adopted Dan Rydell’s take on “Eli’s Coming” during ominous moments.

  2. Andrew Unterberger said

    He must’ve said the phrase “never been to spain” like a half-dozen times over the course of that episode, too. Aaron Sorkin: making Three Dog Night relevant to a new generation of coke freaks.

  3. […] Thoughts: It’s drawn comparisons to CBS’s Cane, but the worst-titled new show of the year essentially presents itself in its pilot as an adult Gossip Girl–appropriate enough, since the shows run consecutively Wednesday nights. Both shows present an insider view to the lives of the rich and famous in high society New York, both are already neck-deep in scandal and bad blood, and both are seen from the view of the one “outsider,” here of course the character of Nick, played excellently by Peter Krause. Now being given a third starring role (at IITS we’ve spent much of the past few months catching up with his work in Sports Night and Six Feet Under) to officially cement his rep as a TV legend, Krause certainly makes the most of a role that could have easily been thankless, the kind of guy you want with you to help navigate through the seamy underbelly of the obscenely upper-class. […]

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