As I finished watching the pilot of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s brand new drama set behind the scenes of a cable news show, my most over-riding thought was “wow, I really miss Sports Night”. You see back in the depths of time (1998) before The Newsroom or Studio 60 were even a spark in his brain, Sorkin created his first television show, a half hour comedy drama about a late night sports news show. To jump to the end of the story, the show wasn’t a massive ratings success and it was cancelled after two seasons. (Although according to Wikipedia other cable channels considered picking it up, but Sorkin chose to let it go so he could focus on something called The West Wing instead.)
A Sorkin fan watching Sports Night will feel right at home, in both a good and bad way, everything that you might love and everything that you might hate about Sorkin is right there. The dialogue is pure Sorkin, unashamedly smart, fast paced banter combined with incredibly powerful and inspiring speeches. His frequent collaborator Thomas Schlamme sets the directorial style in the pilot with the familiar long panning shots and infamous ‘walk and talk’ scenes touring the vast sets.
The real strength of the series though is in its amazing ensemble cast. Before any of them were really famous Sorkin paired up Peter Krausse (Six Feet Under, Parenthood) and Josh Charles (The Good Wife) as Casey and Dan the show’s anchors and added the icing on the cake with Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) as the show’s producer Dana. The three of them really are brilliant, the friendship/romance of Dana and Casey and the partnership between Dan and Casey are beautifully played. The rest of the regular cast and guest stars are dotted with familiar names and faces – Robert Guillaume (Benson!) provides some of the gravitas, Joshua Malina (The West Wing) delivers Sorkin’s fast paced dialogue like no one else and Sabrina Lloyd somehow manages to be convincingly an adorable mess and terrifyingly competent all at once. The guest list features half the cast of The West Wing, Desperate Housewives and is topped off with the incomparable William H. Macy stealing the show in the 2nd season. I even fell in love with Chris, Dave and Will the three technical guys who barely get a line each per episode.
The only problem with the show is when the writing lurches from comedy to drama, and usually fumbles the ball. There’s not enough time in the 22 minute run time of each episode to introduce and explore serious subjects appropriately, and attempts to run them over multiple episodes doesn’t really work either. The early season 1 story about a sexual assault against a journalist was jarringly out of tone with the otherwise light-hearted theme and then equally abruptly dropped and never mentioned again. The exploration of Dan’s depression in season 2 also felt like it rather came out of nowhere and was only salvaged by Josh Charles’ charm and talent.
Re-watching this series, I burnt through 45 episodes in about 2 weeks. The short episodes are perfectly suited to Sorkin’s punchy dialogue, rarely giving you a chance to breath. It’s genuinely funny in a way that’s smart without being smug and witty without being self-involved, I laughed at the jokes about sports and television production and it didn’t matter in the slightest that I have very little idea about either of them. I can’t really be that disappointed that the show was cancelled if it meant that The West Wing could exist, but it’s a cruel world that means I can’t have both.
Dan: I got to tell you, at this point the length of this conversation is way out of proportion to my interest in it.
Casey: I’m particular about cake. And I have to say, it’s been my experience that men buy better cake than women. I’ve found that women tend to get these yoghurt-frosted low-cal things laced with a rum and fruit concoction that make eating cake into something you do to be polite.
Dana: There’s three things that I’m doing. I’m losing things, I’m forgetting things… and there’s a third one.
Casey: Is this guy drunk or a moron?
Dan: Like there’s no chance he could be both?
Dan: Y’know, sometimes it’s worth it, taking all the pies in the face, sometimes you come through it feeling good.
Dan: And how was your day?
Casey: Sometimes you just stand there, hip deep in pie.