Those Stories Plus…
Sports Night Season One
It’s no secret around these parts that Alan Sepinwall’s criticism is a fairly big influence on both what I do and how I do it, but what I find is his most influential contribution to the television watching community is his summer coverage of various shows. Last summer, I started watching The Wire when I did because of his detailed writeups of first season episodes; yes, I knew the show existed and had even purchased some DVD sets ahead of time, but Alan’s work was the motivating factor that made me commit to the series wholeheartedly. Alan’s devotion and commitment to these shows motivates people to watch TV, to buy TV on DVD, and more importantly to discuss that television within a community of like-minded surveyers of moving image.
It also means that this summer, as Alan turns his attention to three different projects (The Wire Season 2, Band of Brothers and Sports Night), many wallets are somewhat lighter, including my own: while I have already seen The Wire’s second season, his other two projects served as the right motivation to keep catching up on shows or miniseries that I missed in the days before my television addiction. It is as a result that I now own a copy of Band of Brothers and the complete series of Sport Night; I’d blame Alan for my dwindling bank account, but then I’d have to lie and say that they weren’t worth every penny.
Sports Night, which aired on ABC from 1998-2000, is something that I’ve always known about, but to be honest I really didn’t know much about its origin, or its format, or really anything to really recommend the series beyond its pedigree. Serving as the training ground for The West Wing for writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, the show covers the behind the scenes goings-on at a cable news show (ala SportsCenter), and relies heavily on the dynamic of its cast, led by the show’s two anchors (Josh Charles and Peter Krause) and the show’s executive producer (Felicity Huffman).
I’m not going to go episode by episode, or really even offer any sort of constructive thoughts about the show’s storylines – it’s a damn good show, one that I suggest everyone watch, but there’s more important things to discuss. For now (I’m only done the first season), I want to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and how I’m absolutely fascinated that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fell apart like it did when Sorkin had these lessons to fall back on.
First off, this is a darn good show – the comedy is sharp and funny, the sports show setting is used in an intelligent fashion, and the cast is downright perfect a good 90% of the time. When the show just lets life happen around its characters, letting the spontaneity of live sports converge with the unpredictability of human behaviour to wreak havoc with any sense of normalcy, it feels like the most organic of series, where both comedy and drama emerge as something natural. Combined with Schlamme’s flowing camera style, and the rapid pace of the newsroom, Sorkin’s trademark banter fits perfectly, finding a rhythm in these characters that never feels like Aaron Sorkin’s words coming out of someone else’s mouth, or at least not initially.
It helps, of course, that there is not yet Sorkin trademark banter to the degree there is now, and that Sorkin hasn’t yet lost the ability to understand how far he can take characters making political statements. There are times in the first season, especially later on, when you can see Sorkin testing the waters – Casey’s criticism of the Christian community for not condemning radicals who threatened to blow up their building, for example, is vintage Sorkin, and problematically so. I don’t know if it would have read as such at the time, as Sorkin’s political views were not quite as pronounced, but there’s a point where the characters move too far outside their own world and there’s a point where they don’t.
It wasn’t like Sorkin wasn’t capable of making this work: while The West Wing would prove a better outlet for his political statements, he makes a fairly powerful one with the events of “The Six Southern Gentlemen from Tennessee” by framing it within the show’s structure. While the bomb scare did happen to the building, it was a bit too convenient that it happened to that building, and even then Casey hadn’t really showed any sort of politicization. Isaac, by comparison, had plenty of reason to respond to the confederate flag protest and its repercussions, and since it was a sporting event that they were covering on the show it made sense that he would get involved. There’s a difference between grandstanding to no one in particular and not shutting up about it (which Casey approached after a while on the whole bomb scare issue), and someone taking a legitimate stand that plays out in dramatic fashion.
“Mary Pat Shelby” was another example of Sorkin taking this idea and bringing it into the Sports Night world, as Natalie falls victim to the sexual harrassment and physical assault of a major football player. The storyline would have felt forced if not for the circumstances surrounding it: because Dana had subconsciously placed Natalie into that position hoping for a story, and because there was that moment where she was forced to use the assault as a bargaining chip to get a better story, the storyline was effectively used to demonstrate the difficulties of making judgment calls based on ratings or “getting the story” instead of based on human compassion for a co-worker. Natalie being as understanding and positive as she is, her pain was mostly hidden, and that moment where Dana throws the interview out the door at the last minute as her conscience gets the better of her is one where you remember that Sports Night the television dramedy is not Sports Night the cable news show, and they’re going to pick their friends (or when Dana passes the show off to Sally, their own personal struggles) before they go after a story or make a decision that could compromise themselves too greatly.
With a series based around live television, it is these moments of sudden humanity that are most effective, moments you don’t see coming and that feel like you’re witnessing behind the scenes of something legitimately monumental. Take, for example, the pilot’s world record victory by an unknown runner that the show had been willing to champion, or “The Apology” where Dan delivers a stirring monologue on how the reason he knows the exact date he gave up recreational drug use was when his brother was killed in a car accident while high. These two moment should be dichotomous: one is highly predictable (the foreshadowing in the pilot makes the moment a big, sappy delight) while the latter was something that wasn’t choreographed in the least, but both are memorable in such a way as to make the show and its characters resonate with an audience.
However, not everything works quite as well as those moments, as there are times when Sorkin’s affinity for playing into cliches turns against him, particularly when it comes to the touchy subject of romantic tension. There are times when it seems like Sorkin is just playing in a sandbox: there are some episodes that feel like he’s just letting things run loose and the characters are able to find a natural order of sorts, and there are others where he’s like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes twisting and manipulating them to see what he can get away with. Unfortunately, it seems as if he decided that Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman were his two favourite toys, and the result was a Casey and Dana relationship that never gets off the ground.
There just isn’t anything natural about it: the pilot positions them at a point where they could eventually get together (he having just divorced, she being decidedly single), but the problem is that the show never really lets the idea rest. It establishes it so much that it’s hard for Dana and Casey to have a scene together without there being some sort of nod towards their romantic tension. It got to the point where, despite my love for pretty much everything related to Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), I began to despise her for constantly being the cheerleader for this ill-advised union that wasn’t actually that ill-advised, just shoved down our throats the absolute wrong way. There are moments where Sorkin is quite clever about it: the entire shirt-swap in “Sally” is a clever way of moving pieces into play without a lot of bland exposition or overly intense confrontations. Unfortunately, the show had already spent so much time being anything but subtle or clever that there wasn’t really any going back, which doesn’t give me much confidence for the show’s ability to handle it in the future.
What’s fascinating is that it’s not as if Sorkin can’t handle writing a relationship: Jeremy and Natalie’s relationship is pretty well perfect by comparison, delivering some very sweet moments as well as some very funny ones. There’s an ease about their relationship, how they slip into their rapport quickly, and become a couple without disrupting the work environment and yet also without compromising their individual characters. Jeremy is still able to have his emotional storyline about his parents’ stormy divorce, as the relationship just moves to the side slightly to compensate; when they need to re-enter the situation, there’s the hilarious runner in “Ordnance Tactics” where Jeremy attempts to break up with her and she simply staunchly refuses to accept it. There’s something that was always clever and charming about that pairing, and while Joshua Malina and Lloyd were a huge part of this the writing also did them a lot of favours.
I don’t think Krause and Huffman are really to blame for the ineffectiveness of Dana and Casey’s union either, at the end of the day – yes, it is true that both aren’t particularly strong at playing sweet and sappy (see both of their respective big post-Sports Night shows in Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives), but there were moments where their banter felt perfectly at home, and where their tension was sidelined just long enough for you to think that maybe they really are perfect for each other. Of course, directly after this, Sorkin decides that they are too, and everything just goes downhill.
I thought at first that it was just that giving relationships to the anchors was just too much hassle, but then Josh Charles managed to turn Dan’s relationship with Rebecca into a pretty effective little storyline with the help of Teri Polo. Charles is pretty much an unknown quantity for me (as I haven’t quite gotten around to watching the first season of In Treatment, which was his last major role I could have watched), but I find him to be a bit of a revelation. His ability to breeze his way through Sorkin’s dialogue is most impressive, but his ability to effectively turn what could have been a pompous showboat into an empathetic human being is truly commendable work. He’s a character that can be a comic foil when it’s required of him, but also someone whose morality streak and life guidance has proven a strong tool for Sorkin as the season went on. He just seems to click with everyone else in the cast, and that really helps to hold things together even through awkward Dana/Casey moments.
And I think that needs to be said: at the end of the day, even those episodes which focus heavily on Dana and Casey are not awful, or tainted in some way. In many instances, the subplots remain entirely intact, and those parts of the episode that don’t get sucked into a romantic orbit remain sharply funny and effective. In some ways this is because of a character like Dan, or especially one like Isaac. I was watching an episode in my room while spending some time at home, and my mother leans over to ask “Is that Benson?” as she first hear Robert Guillaume’s voice. I, of course, don’t know him as Benson, not did I even put together that he was the voice of Rafiki in The Lion King (the more you know, I guess). Either way, Isaac is the perfect character in a comedy show like this, the voice of reason who will hear an innane conversation and point out that it’s an innane conversation. Sorkin may have a reputation for being a little bit cocksure, but I would tend to argue that he is actually far more self-aware here than he becomes later, and Isaac’s lack of patience for the romantic tension and the like is a sign of that (although, of course, I wish Isaac had gotten through to people and got them to cut it out, but that’s expecting a bit too much).
He’s also something that grounds the show that much further: when he has his stroke, and makes his triumphant return in the season finale just as Dana’s about to go completely insane, it’s a legitimately powerful moment because of how much the show missed his sardonic nature and the way his authority helped stabilize the environment. Isaac is like the character that doesn’t exist in the world of The Office, someone between Dana and the big boss who helps mediate conflicts and keep this from becoming one constant battle. His presence allows them to keep doing the show in their own way, and allows Sorkin the ability to tell stories more about everyday life than responding to crisis after crisis. He loves those kinds of episodes, of course: whether climbing Mount Everest, or the impending threat of Thespus, or the foreboding note of Eli’s Coming, those broad thematic episodes of crisis and adaptability are one of his trademarks. But with Isaac there things are kept smaller, and in this universe that’s an effective way to keep the focus on the character dynamic and not sports, or politics, or internal affairs at Continental Corp.
Now, in the interest of relatively full disclosure (I’m offering it a bit late in the post), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was my first experience following a Sorkin show from the very beginning – I watched some of The West Wing, and have seen some of the “big” episodes, but it remains a blind spot for me. But it’s interesting to see the bookends in Sorkin’s TV career independent of the more successful middle part, primarily because there are plenty of sensibilities: behind the scenes of a television show, interaction between producers/actors/network suits, the exact same “What do you mean I’m not funny?” subplot given to both Huffman and Sarah Paulson, etc. And while I’ve gone on at length before about the reasons why Studio 60 failed to get off the ground (I know now that Sorkin can write comedy, just not quite sketch comedy), watching Sports Night makes that all the more unfathomable. If we take the Dana/Casey relationship as Sports Night’s only real major drawback, Studio 60 compounds that with two similar relationships that dominate too much of the season with a loss of the control over what political or current events could realistically be commented upon within the show format in question.
I can see why Sorkin would gravitate towards that concept, because it seems like it should be an extension: just as Sports Night was about covering sports, a sketch comedy show is about covering current events, and politics, and all of those things that Sorkin appears to love more than he loves sports. However, the problem is that Sports Night always felt like it knew its place, delivering a nightly program – sure, sometimes various hijinks got in the way of this notion, and their priorities became waylaid, but when they were reporting a major story it felt like it was for a good reason. With Studio 60, it seemed like these sketch comedy writers were convinced their show was going to save the world, as the rhetoric and the arguments related to it felt completely overblown, and any sense of character dynamics got lost in the shuffle. Sorkin was working with similar ingredients to Sports Night and the West Wing both, but it seemed like getting the cocktail just right distracted him from seeing what made Sports Night work so well.
The show took some time to find its groove: Sepinwall has details in his review of the pilot about Sorkin’s struggles with the network over a live audience and the laugh track (which is apparently gone in season two), and the half-hour setting does occasionally seem like it’s keeping Sorkin from being able to tell the stories he wants to tell. However, in some ways I appreciated the laugh track early on, and to some degree got so used to it that I missed it – it would kind of be like watching How I Met Your Mother without a laugh track – the show was great to begin with, and we were used to the laughter being there, so its absence would be odd even if it wasn’t totally necessary. Alan notes that it took awhile before Sorkin was writing jokes that felt like they were designed to be laughed at on stage, and it’s true; however, once the laugh track started fading away late in the season, not hearing laughs after those lines seemed kind of strange, which shows you both how powerful concurrent DVD viewing can be as well as how well Sorkin and company managed to adapt to their surroundings.
It is weird, though, to see Sorkin working within the half-hour system, as he really was ahead of his time here: while some episodes fall into particular gimmicks or cliches (the poker game being an example, although not a bad one – Shoe Money To-Night!), others feel like they’re moving at a strange pace, escalating in a way that defies the way a “sitcom” is supposed to work. I am no sitcom historian, nor can I honestly say that I can adequately discuss the evolution from multi-camera to single-camera, but the rise of serialization in the half-hour comedy really came a good five years after Sports Night left the air, but here you can see those kinds of stories being told before their time. The show going on any further than it did would have created various other hypothetical logjams (Krause and Huffman having moved on to big things in the years that followed), but one also senses that perhaps it might have ushered in that wave a bit sooner (Malcolm in the Middle followed the season after, I know, but perhaps there might have been enough for a trend if Sports Night had stuck around).
But these, of course, are just the thoughts of a new convert who has only gone through the second season – I’ll be diving into that soon enough, I expect, but will likely hold off on any specific posts until I get through the entire season. I will, however, likely tweet my specific episode thoughts on occasion, so follow me on Twitter if you really desire to know my thoughts on the premiere, or the finale, or anything else in between before I write another three thousand words about the show (although I said a lot of the more general things here, so maybe it won’t be as long…oh, who am I kidding, of course it will be as long). In the meantime, if you’ve read this and haven’t seen the show before, then you’ve spoiled it for yourself and need to go buy it to rectify this error. Meanwhile, if you already have, make sure you’re reading Alan Sepinwall’s reviews, as this definitely is a show deserving of plenty of discussion, and proved a great way to spend a week of a summer light on new TV.
- I enjoy the level to which the show has fleshed out the various control room characters – on top of Kim and Elliot (the non-main cast producers), you have the three guys who work graphics/video/everything else, and it’s a really fun little dynamic between all of them. You can even throw Alice the makeup girl on there too, as she got to have a few charming moments as well. Sorkin celebrates this collectivity with the Christmas episode where Casey is guilted into thanking anyone and everyone on the cast that they don’t recognize enough following his appearance on The View, but the show itself doesn’t really have that problem.
- Speaking of that episode, plenty of familiar faces amongst guest stars: Janel Maloney foreshadows her West Wing role with her earnest appearance as a wardrobe assistant, Brenda Strong and her legs make quite an impression as Sally (really makes me wish that they had let her remain alive on Desperate Housewives, she’s too good to be stuck doing voiceovers. Resurrection?), and showkiller Ted McGinley was just smarmy enough to pull off Gordon. Add in the aforementioned Polo, along with Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson), and I thought the guest casting was pretty strong across the board. The one face that’s becoming more familiar for me is Brad William Henke, who played abusive football star Christian Patrick, and is currently playing Bram on Lost.
- Interesting to see Sorkin’s different depictions of network suits on this show and on Studio 60 – J.J. is without question an opportunistic douchebag (his name even sounds evil when the characters say it), while I’d argue that Steven Weber’s character on Studio 60 was actually the closest thing the show had to an Isaac, someone not willing to fall to the level of the characters. Perhaps this was simply a symptom of how frustrated Studio 60 made me, but I found Jack Rudolph to be the most competent character on that show, even in his position as a network suit.
- I’ve yet to dig into the second season, so try to avoid spoilers if at all possible – at the same time, I’m already aware about the lack of resolution, so that’s fair game.