Sports Night: Season 1 & 2

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.
Casey: Yessss.
Dan: And how was your day?
Casey: Sometimes you just stand there, hip deep in pie.

More quotes at my other website. Sadly Sports Night is not available on Region 2, but you can import it on Region 1

Sports Night: Season 2

Season 2 of this series introduces some more arcs for the characters, some darker like Dan’s depression and some just a bit stupid like Dana’s insistence that Casey see other women before they date. To be honest, none of these really seem to go anywhere probably due to Aaron Sorkin’s focus shifting to something called The West Wing.

The 22 minute episodes continue to hamper the plots, with barely enough time for a main plot, let alone introducing elements of arc. However the acting and writing are still superb enough that I’d watch them just babbling about baseball all day. The direction is a little less strained and the awful laugh track seems to have disappeared! Such a shame this series didn’t have longer each episode and a longer run, but if it’s sacrifice allowed for The West Wing, I’m not going to sulk for long.

Sports Night: Season 1

Watching this after watching The West Wing and Studio 60 is a bit strange, so many of the ideas Aaron Sorkin plays with in Sports Night are developed further in his later series. In some ways it’s disappointing because ge re-uses a lot – plots, dialogue, even names; but it’s sort of fun to see the consistency.

The format is very strange, it’s the same blend of comedy and drama as the later series, but because it’s only 22 minutes per episode the drama feels a lot more rushed and not really earned. I’d frequently be just getting into an episode when suddenly it’s the credits alreayd. The chemistry and casting is great, except when they again have to accelerate things and it feels too rushed.

The direction and production is very strange. There are some examples of the later smoothness (and the classic walk-n-talks) but there’s some really horrible handheld stuff that’s just really jarring and unpleasant. The laughter track is possibly the most depressing thing though, it’s scary just how many of the jokes and background humour don’t get any laughs at all.