The title said “Sports Night” but the show itself had relatively little to do with sports. It was a new brand of dramedy (dramatic comedy) from Aaron Sorkin that focused on running/repeating dialogue a la Moonlighting, and mastered the technique known as “walk and talk”. The laugh track was all but eliminated, soulful music played over silent scenes, and complex choreography and technical talk ran rampant through the scripts. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but instead quirky and witty. It struggled through the first season to find an audience, was barely renewed, struggled through the second season, and was canceled. Along the way it picked up three Emmys and was courted by other networks, such as Showtime and USA. In the end, it was eclipsed by its big brother, The West Wing, which took Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night foundations and ran willy nilly with them.
As much as Lissa is in deep smit with The West Wing, I am equally smitten with Sports Night. Me, the guy who couldn’t care less about sports. Me, the guy who is writing this article. THAT “me”.
While its early cancellation and failure to find a large audience aren’t ringing endorsements, what is MRFH for, if not to pick up the cult underdogs and shake their hands with pleasure? You couldn’t ask for a series that contains more heart, clever scripting and intriguing dramatic moments. Sure, The West Wing has all that, but it’s far too “blah blah SERIOUS democratic blah blah” and it got huge chunks of its material straight from Sports Night. In fact, if you’re coming to Sports Night after watching The West Wing, you might accuse the former show of plagiarism. Which only holds up in a court of time travel law.
I first discovered Sports Night around 2002 or 2003 with the magic of TiVo. After seeing a couple episodes, I instructed TiVo in no uncertain terms that it would hunt down and record every single Sports Night story or I would chuck TiVo out of a second story window. TiVo complied. Later on, Sports Night came to DVD, which allowed me to hold the entire show in the palm of my hand while tears of joy streaked down my face.
It’s hard to say what made that connection between Sports Night and myself. It’s a funny show, sure, but beyond the humor is a group of co-workers who genuinely regard each other as friends and family. It’s played to my underdog sensibilities – just as much as the show itself struggled for acclaim and survival, the fictitious sports broadcast show fought to rise out of third place to gain respect and continued operations. It had genuinely moving moments, the admiration of people who have a serious passion for one thing in life (this being sports, of course), and a great use of music. But above all that was the intricate, dancing wordplay of Sorkin and the writing staff, who packed in rapid-fire dialogue that scooted here, there and everywhere within the 22 minutes allowed.
The pilot episode kicks us off into a dark day at Sports Night, a CSC (Continental Sports Channel) show. The third-place show struggled as one of its hosts, Casey (Peter Krause), unleashed his apathy and bitterness stemming from a recent divorce. Happily, his co-anchor and best friend Dan (Josh Charles), ex-girlfriend producer Dana (Felicity Huffman) and managing editor Isaac (Robert Guillaume) are there to pick him back up and reinject a love of the game (of sportscasting).
From there strings out a wildly unpredictable ride that takes place all over Sports Night’s labyrinth offices – from the shooting studio to the control room to the editing bays to the main floor to Dan and Casey’s office to the lair of Isaac himself – and Sorkin’s “walk and talk” delivery is put to good use as pairs of conversationalists talk on the move, split and join up with other walking buddies. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone ever stopped walking on this show; it was like a giant treadmill in an office setting.
Integrity and holding on to your moral values is one of the key themes of the show, and even with a decidedly liberal slant, it’s far more balanced in that regard than the politically-charged West Wing. Instead, Sports Night’s stories went more for the smaller events – a co-worker who is sexually assaulted, a ratings scoop at the cost of selling out, struggles with upper management, dating, drug use, office trivia games, vengeful ghosts and homelessness.
One story in particular had a special, double impact: Robert Guillaume suffered a stroke in the middle of the first season, which was then written into the show as Isaac had the same problem.
Through all of this flows a neverending parade of guest stars and recognizable faces, including William H. Macy as “Ratings Advisor” Sam Donovan, Teri Polo as Dan’s love interest Rebecca Wells, and Brenda Strong as Sally Sasser, another producer on CSC and a love rival against Dana for Casey’s affections.
45 episodes seem far too light in number for such a terrific show – in my opinion, the show started to go to a deeper, darker, yet more satisfying place in the second season, and the final episode only leaves you hungry for more.