Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gone but Not Forgotten: Sports Night (1998-2000)

When Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar this year for writing The Social Network, it all but confirmed that he is one of the best writers in the entertainment industry. After having beautifully written A Few Good Men and The American President, he ventured into television with three distinctive series. The West Wing had an amazing run and is one of the best dramas in the history of the medium. His most recent work was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a flawed but no less fascinating drama about the everyday problems of producing a satirical sketch show. It was cancelled too soon, before it had a chance to find its voice.

But it was Sports Night, his first series, that featured some of his finest work. The show was critically revered but ratings-challenged, which explains why the show only lasted 45 episodes. But what wonderful episodes they were.

Like Studio 60, its focus is behind the scenes of a television show, a Sportscenter-type newscast for a cable network not unlike ESPN. The cast of characters includes two affable anchors who happen to be best friends off-camera. Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) has trouble keeping a relationship and Casey McCall (Peter Krause) is in love with their boss, executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman). Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina) is a nerdy producer who is smitten with a senior colleague, the spunky Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd). They all report to (and lean on) Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume), father figure and managing editor of Sports Night. It's safe to say that this show has very little to do with sports and a lot to do with the relationships and friendships between colleagues in a high-energy work environment.

What sets this show apart from any other half-hour sitcom I've ever seen is Sorkin's trademark rat-a-tat wordplay. The dialogue is like butter, effortlessly bringing these characters together and apart like strings on a marionette. The 22-minute episodes fly by at breakneck speed. It's not atypical for you to be out of breath when the final credits roll.

Another Sorkin trademark is his walk-and-talk technique, where his characters talk as they are walking from one location to another. As the characters interact with each other, you're constantly working to keep up with the moving camera. Sorkin, along with his ace director, Thomas Schlamme, started it on Sports Night and they continued the tradition on West Wing and Studio 60. Schlamme, by the way, is the glue that holds everything together. I credit him as much as Sorkin for making Sports Night as fluid and mesmerizing as it is.

As I mentioned, the show is about relationships. Watching these wonderful characters interact is the main source of pleasure with this show. Dan and Casey, for one, have a special rapport that is little seen in sitcom-land. The chemistry tends to be superficial since most sitcom dialogue are devised to set up and deliver punch lines. Sorkin's wordplay not only contains these standard elements but is also infused with little character touches. After the pilot alone, you already get a great sense that Dan and Casey are really close friends. They finish each other's sentences like a married couple. Josh Charles and Peter Krause nail their characters week after week. Whenever I see them in other shows, I can never shake their Sports Night alter egos.

Casey and Dana have an undeniable spark, also thanks to Krause and Felicity Huffman. Both actors moved on to successful shows after this one (Six Feet Under, Parenthood for him, Desperate Housewives for her) and I would just love to see these two actors cross over shows and work together again. Their on-again off-again escapades on Sports Night is the stuff of wonderful screwball comedy.

Adding dramatic depth to the show was the decision to write in Robert Guillaume's real life stroke at the end of the first season. Isaac was a central figure to all of these characters and to see him so vulnerable shook everyone to their core. To see Guillaume back at work so soon and delivering Sorkin's zesty punchlines was nothing short of inspiring.

I think the main reason this show never took off with audiences is the title. Many people were under the impression that the show was about sports, which puts off a lot of viewers. Even Friday Night Lights suffered the same fate. Sports may be the backdrop, a key interest in the characters of these shows, but the universal relationships and the drama that unfolds between them is what makes these shows soar. Sadly, ignorant viewers never gave them a chance. Instead, they flock to the latest medical or cop drama since familiarity is what they are most comfortable with.

Aaron Sorkin turned the conventions of television on its head with his three shows, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

2 comments:

Joe said...

Peter Krause looks like such a kid in that DVD cover! Wow...

Get this: the word verification is comyede (comedy?) :)

Dave said...

Joe, hard to believe I've been watching Krause regularly for 13 years now. We looked just as young back in '98, didn't we?

Re: comyede. Who knew Blogger had a sense of humor? :-)

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