Top 10 Comedies: #4 Sports Night
Previously...on Outkick the Coverage...
It wasn't supposed to work out like this but simply due to the rankings, it fell in this manner, so we go with it and accept the coincidence without further exposition. For the third week in a row, we go to a magical land full of shows within other shows, shows about other shows, but again, we find a truly special property. This one was created by Aaron Sorkin, who we've talked about in great detail in the past, which you know if you read my drama countdown last year (see The West Wing).
It lasted just two seasons because it was planetary systems beyond its own television generation and was on a network that didn't quite know what to do with it, or maybe just didn't pay close enough attention. The only show on this list, and as the viewer that I am, the only one I've ever seen, that began with a laugh track and quickly realized it was all wrong and cut it completely in the second season. That shift sounds like it should be the subject of a Chuck Klosterman essay. It was bold and had the kind of ensemble reading its dialogue and acting out its storylines that a television mind dreams of on warm nights. Welcome, to the Continental Sports Channel.
NUMBER FOUR: SPORTS NIGHT (1998-2000 - ABC)
I said a few weeks ago that Flight of the Conchords could have made my list had it run longer. It, too, was on the air for just two seasons, though it was not canceled. I'm reasonably sure if Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement wanted to do another year, HBO would be all for it. I know I would. At the risk of pushing my Nostradamus-like tendencies too far, I know YOU would. Sports Night was on the air for two years, but had 45 episodes compared to Conchords, which had 22.
I also said Louie didn't make this list because I didn't classify it strictly as a comedy. At some point, I'll write about that show, can't wait to do it as a matter of fact, but Sports Night as well can often be highly dramatic. If you're using an abacus at home, that's two broken rules for Sports Night that I didn't break for two other excellent programs, and there's one reason for that decision:
I had to, I just had to, because I have a level of adoration for Sorkin's first foray into television that wouldn't allow me to bypass it.
At times, it's very funny, at times it's the exact opposite. It's one of a kind, because from its first episode, Sorkin seemed to have found the show's voice, tone, and timing. It's why the hopes were so high for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and why the reaction was all the more harsh. People expected better, because they'd experienced it before, thanks to ABC.
The Continental Sports Channel (CSC) is a third place sports network, behind ESPN and behind a secondary channel at times mentioned as FOX and on other occasions termed as CNN-SI. The short version is CSC is a less-established channel, fighting for relevance, but with plenty of talent. If that sounds extremely familiar to you because you were a viewer of The Newsroom, also created by Sorkin, you'd be right. CSC is, in many ways, the sports equivalent of ACN.
Sports Night, the primetime sports news program on CSC, is supposed to reflect SportsCenter, but with more specifics than just the idea itself. Josh Charles, who I first encountered watching Dead Poets Society with my church youth group in middle school, plays Dan Rydell, a smart, funny, Dartmouth College educated sports anchor who generally works alongside his on-camera partner, Casey McCall (Peter Krause). The two have outstanding chemistry as a duo and are indeed good friends outside of work. Also, Charles and Krause as actors work exceedingly well together. Rydell and McCall were created in large part to represent Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. It wasn't a perfect comparison and it wasn't supposed to be. It wasn't the "Big Show", it was just supposed to have that feel, and it absolutely did from the pilot to the finale.
If a show is going to be about another show, unless it's a parody or satire like 30 Rock, that pseudo-show has to at least be respectable. Sports Night's teases into and out of commercial breaks, and I mean the fake show-within-a-show Sports Night, were so good I'd have watched the fake show or the real show if it existed. These guys knew sports and neither had a voice that annoyed me. They were funny, they were engaging, they were straight up pros. Sorkin did such a good job of making the fake sports news show entertaining that it almost sucked that we usually would see everything leading up to it and would be robbed of the hour of CSC program I'd have sat through. Unlike The Newsroom, where quite often I had less than zero interest in watching NewsNight with Will McAvoy, Sports Night I wanted to see.
So, Aaron nailed his subject matter and Sports Night quickly rose to be one of the most interesting new shows of the fall season in 1998. But, did he and his staff get the casting right outside of the two leads? In a phrase, you'd damn well better believe it. Krause and Charles were stupendous (first time I've gotten to use that adjective, perhaps ever in a piece of writing), but Sports Night needed an office full of the right people. What they got was a group of immensely talented individuals who wanted to show just how good they could be.
Casey: It's a vicious circle.
Dan: Yep. Just keeps going around and around.
Casey: Never stops.
Dan: That's what makes it vicious.
Casey: And a circle. (S1E9)
Felicity Huffman, long before she was desperate or a housewife, was Executive Producer with Dana Whitaker, who was a long-time friend of Casey McCall. Sports Night did plenty in the romance realm, including tons of "will they or won't they" moments with Dana and Casey, sometimes painfully annoying because it felt like such an easy "yes they will," but it was hard to dislike Dana. She was such a great executive producer, caring about sports to an enormous degree, and she was also, as the men (including me) said...hot, so she had it all. In Season 2, her real life husband, William H. Macy, joined the cast as Sam Donovan, a ratings analyst who was a guru of improving struggling programming. He would be nominated for an Emmy in 2000 for that role, as he should have been.
Joshua Malina, now perhaps best known to newer television fans as Scandal's David Rosen, will always be Jeremy Goodwin in my book. Malina's father was a Broadway producer and he worked on both stage and screen, but he's a guy that has always seen benefits from growth and continuity as a performer. You want to see this guy every week, to see if it's possible to deliver dialogue any faster or with more precision than it was the previous week. Rosen as a character can be neurotic, but is usually more measured. Jeremy Goodwin, who popped up in the pilot in a waiting room nervous about obtaining a dream job in sports broadcasting, was pure gold from moment one. One of the highlights of Sports Night's entire run was Goodwin attempting to impress Dana Whitaker, who wanted to push him and see his depth of sports knowledge and confidence, out of nowhere, not even in a traditional interview setting, and nearly sent him over the deep end:
Dana: Name three things the Knicks need to do this season to make it to the finals.
Jeremy: Um, I couldn't get another question?
Dana: You will, but not until I hear an answer to the first one.
Jeremy: What do the Knicks...?
Dana: Three things the Knicks need to do to contend.
Jeremy: Ms. Whitaker, I would be great at this job. You've got to believe me when I tell you I've been training my whole life for it. I've crunched stats, I've broken down film, and there wasn't a team at my high school that didn't have me for an equipment manager. I've read every box score in every newspaper that's printed in English and has a sports section, and I've seen Sports Night every night since your first broadcast two years, two months and a week ago today.
Now yes, sure, indeed, I can tell you what Ewing and Oakley are shooting from the field, and that you're not going to stop John Starks if he squares up to the basket, and put any defensive pressure on Charlie Ward, he's going to fold like a cheap card table. But if you're asking me for genuinely sophisticated analyses -- and I sense that you are (said totally out of control & exasperated) --then you've got to give me some time. At least twenty minutes. Did that make any sense? (S1E1)
I spent extra time on Malina both because he's a personal favorite of mine, along with Charles, and because as much as anybody, perhaps more than anybody, he encapsulated Sports Night. Malina and Sorkin have worked together repeatedly since meeting on Broadway and most probably still associate him first with his work as Will Bailey on The West Wing. He was a master of the rapid-fire delivery required to do the Sorkin thing right. Many actors simply can't pull it off or struggle to do it correctly, but in my head, when I watch Malina perform on Sports Night, I see Aaron Sorkin's vision of a perfect actor for his style. Actually, when I see him perform period, I see the Sorkin prototype.
Think of Aaron Sorkin like a successful college football program, maybe Oregon. Pretend he's Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich. It's all about that system and finding the right guys to execute it. Joshua Malina is Marcus Mariota, but with a better chance to succeed in the pros. It's why he's been a page in so many of Aaron's playbooks, from TV to stage to screen. It's also because of that natural ability that his research assistant character, Goodwin, became an associate producer, which necessitated more screen time.
Sabrina Lloyd is the talented, blunt Natalie Hurley, Senior Executive Producer of Sports Night on CSC, and very quickly becomes Jeremy's love interest. She's another one born to work for Aaron Sorkin. In many respects, the relationship between Jeremy and Natalie was the showcase for dialogue while Casey and Dana was the showcase for drama. Both pairings had plenty of trouble, but both were extremely compelling to watch. She was the key component in one of the best episodes in the series, "Mary Pat Shelby," about her run-in with football player Christian Patrick in a locker room as she attempted to do a story on his involvement in the sexual assault of his ex-girlfriend. It was here where anybody who didn't know it already realized Lloyd was indispensible to Sports Night.
Rounding out the regular cast was the great Robert Guillaume, a veteran of Soap and its spinoff, Benson, where his butler character, Benson Dubois, was the star. On Sports Night he played Isaac Jaffe, the outspoken managing editor for CSC and Sports Night. He was able, more than anyone in the cast, to flip a drama to comedy switch in a split-second and change the tenor of an episode. Guillaume suffered a stroke in Season 1, which was worked into the show, and both that reality and the CSC ratings pressure led to plenty of drama, but because this is a comedy list, it also led to great moments like this:
Dan Rydell: You had a stroke.
Isaac: Is that what that was?
Dan Rydell: Yes.
Isaac: I thought it was bad swordfish. (S2E1)
Because it's an Aaron Sorkin joint, you can count on it being opinionated, tackling political and social issues, and you can also bank on it being continually fascinating, even if that fact became a negative in his last two forays into television. Sports Night touched on sports, but also on the homeless problem in America, gun control relative to hunting for sport, sexual assault, drug legalization, racism, and the constant issues surrounding ratings and problems at a lower-rated television network. The ratings issues lead to talk and eventually the sale of CSC to a company named Quo Vadimus, which loosely translated means "where are we going." That story ends up being the final one told on the program and mirrored the actual program's questionable future. It was also my first introduction, or the first one I remember vividly, to Clark Gregg.
It's funny because as I've gotten a bit further into this piece, Sports Night appears more dramatic than it is comedic in most cases. But, when it was good for a laugh, it was good for embarrassingly loud cackles and ridiculous guffaws:
Casey: Is there anyone who can say anything that will make us feel like the smart thing to do is to stay in this building right now? (During a bomb scare)
Dana: In ten minutes, three and a half million people will tune in to watch the two of you on television. Many of them will be women.
Casey: ...All right. (S1E20)
Another highlight from just that same episode as Dan spoke to his on again, off again girlfriend Rebecca Wells (Teri Polo):
Dan: Why are you mad at me?
Rebecca: Why were you avoiding me during the bomb scare?
Dan Rydell: I wasn't avoiding you.
Rebecca: You were. We were out on the street for over an hour. It was a perfectly good bomb scare.
Dan Rydell: I tried to find you.
Rebecca: No, you didn't. And every time I tried to find you, someone would say you had just left the place that someone else had just said you had been right before.
Dan Rydell: That was a truly spectacular sentence.
And one more:
Dan: I was employing the covert ordnance tactics I learned.
Rebecca: Where did you learn covert ordnance tactics?
Sports Night stood out because it was different and the way these people talked and engaged with one another was so unique. Critics loved it and it never found any semblance of an audience on ABC. Actually that's not entirely true, it had over 11 million viewers in the second season, so by today's standards, it would be a success. More than anything, Sports Night was a victim of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire era, where they'd have been happy to put nothing but Regis Philbin and Tim Allen on the air and just called it a day. Sports Night was also the first walk-and-talk style effort from Sorkin and television directing partner Thomas Schlamme, a format they would perfect in The West Wing, turning it into an art form.
As for awards, Huffman received a Golden Globe nomination, Macy an Emmy nomination, Schlamme two directing Emmy nominations and one win, Sorkin an Emmy nomination, the main cast a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination, three Television Critics Association nominations and a win, and countless other honors including the Humanitas Prize. All of these accolades were earned in just two seasons for a program relatively few people watched while it was actually on the air and one that was never in the national conversation. In retrospect, it's incredibly impressive. Actually, as it was taking place real-time, it was impressive.
Sports Night isn't streaming on NETFLIX these days, though it is on HULU, and it's one of the best experiences I've ever had watching television. I binged it just after it left the air, picked up the DVDs over ten years ago, binged it again, and continue to go back to it fairly regularly because I can put on any episode and enjoy the talent and the effort. Working in sports media myself makes it even easier, but that's hardly a prerequisite.
The cast had acting chops for miles and had names that became much bigger stars, aided by their experiences, from Josh Charles ending up as Will Gardner on The Good Wife, Peter Krause on Six Feet Under and much later, starring on Parenthood, which just finished up a brilliant run last week, Joshua Malina on The West Wing and Scandal, to Felicity Huffman on Desperate Housewives and Transamerica. Even some of the smaller contributors to Sports Night did quite well, some with Aaron himself. Janel Moloney was barely ever seen on Sports Night, but her West Wing role as Donna Moss is one of my favorite television characters of all-time.
So, you take one part Aaron Sorkin, one part sports news show within a show, six parts flawless ensemble cast, put them all in a room, and you come out with the belle of the ball. Sports Night sadly lasted just those two seasons, those 45 splendid episodes, but considering The West Wing ended up being an end-game and its success partially a byproduct of Sorkin's experience on ABC, its importance in television history is much greater than its short life span.
I really miss Sports Night. I quote it on Twitter. I've used SN character names on various message boards throughout the years. I've followed the career of every one of its stars in subsequent years. My first job ever writing about television was as a show-recapper for the official fan site just after the DVD collection released. The Internet was a much different thing back then. Angelfire was my jam. Geocities was my homey.
And this show...well, it was my everything. And there's no better way to close than in classic Casey McCall signature fashion...
You're watching Sports Night on CSC, so...stick around.
Both seasons of the critically acclaimed Sports Night are available on HULU and on DVD as a collection. In 2010, the first season was released as a standalone as well.
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