Television shows based around sports have always been a bit of an enigma to me. While I appreciate the need to represent the theme of athleticism on TV it seemed the audience for such a show would be tuning into other programming. That would be actual sporting events, specifically.
This obviously put a series like Sports Night in a difficult predicament. The perceived core demographic is either out playing sports, or watching it on TV (instead of this show) and the remaining viewing audience thinks they need to be sports fans to understand the content. Even with a tagline of, “It’s about Sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.” the inherent misperception of who Sports Night was trying to capture as an audience is the most likely reason the series lasted only two seasons.
Trust me when I say, this may have been one of the greatest upsets in television history because Sports Night is simply one of the best shows I’ve watched. It was deserving of overtime, and I’ll tell you why after the jump.
Let me start with a slight disclaimer. This was supposed to be a review of Sports Night: The Complete First Season. Upon inserting the DVDs I discovered they contained all the season two content. With that out of way, allow me to continue.
Created by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Sports Night follows the team behind a sports commentary show of which the series is named after. As I mentioned, you may feel you need a playbook to understand what the show is about, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It only takes about three minutes of viewing before you realize the sports backdrop has little to do with the story arcs in the series. Even when sports do take precedence, the concepts are pretty clearly spelled out. As the tagline above states, Sports Night really has nothing to do with sports.
For those who have only seen the first season you’ll notice one very notable difference in season two, the absence of a laugh track. In an effort to stand apart from sitcom counterparts at the time Sorkin never wanted a laugh track but the network insisted. ABC relented, however, and removed it entirely for season two. As such, the show feels more like a drama and less like a comedy. While a significant retooling to the series, there is absolutely no shortage of laugh out loud moments even without the canned laughter. Perhaps even better, the jokes and dialogue feel much more natural when not accompanied by the invasive prompting which a laugh track typically brings with it.
In season two there are three prevailing story arcs amid the other random occurrences from episode to episode. The ongoing romance between Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), an identity crisis by co-anchor Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and, to a lesser extent, the loss of confidence in managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) after suffering from a stroke by network executives. Make no mistake; while these are the main reoccurring plot points, Sorkin goes out of his way to make sure Sports Night is riddled with plenty of other chaos-inducing scenarios.
Two other characters of note are senior associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) and associate producer Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina). Much like Huffman, Lloyd brings a tenacious and strong female character to the series, something Sorkin is known for in all his shows. Malina delivers his enjoyable “dork” role which stands in contrast to the two leading sports anchors. One episode in particular finds Malina, as a would-be, intrepid tech guru performing a trial run of his Y2K prevention plan. His response when things go awry is thoroughly entertaining, especially when watching everything unfold so many years after that incident occurred.
The ensemble cast brings nothing short of synergy to Sports Night. Setting the stage for shows like The West Wing, Sorkin makes sure each person has a role to play and builds on individual skill sets. At no point are you left wondering what a character is doing or what their place is. Everyone falls perfectly into place every episode. Moreover, the archetypes of each character will be very familiar to those who have come to know Sorkin’s other work.
The setup and subsequent evolution of the story lines throughout season two is masterfully done. While there is some regret that we never get the full pay off due to Sports Night’s untimely demise, the characters are so enduring you can’t help but watch with extreme interest. One character in particular is ratings consultant Sam Donovan, played by guest star William H. Macy. Macy’s performance as the overly confident Donovan is nothing short of brilliant and if you watch Sports Night for no other reason make it him. Interestingly enough, Macy seemed to make the biggest impression on Sport Night’s own Felicity Huffman as she would become his future wife.
Regardless of the help Donovan’s character gave to the show in respect to ratings ultimately the fictional cable network is faced with being sold off to another company. This is when art begins to imitate life and Sorkin’s gift for bridging fantasy and the real world unfolds. As the characters struggle with the impeding sell off and potential loss of their jobs, Sports Night (the real show) was in the midst of a possibly being handed off itself. Struggling to find an audience, ABC was looking to cancel the series, but networks such as HBO, Showtime and USA were interested in picking it up.
At the same time, Sorkin and executive producer Thomas Schlamme were heavily invested in the first season of The West Wing. In turn, Sports Night had become somewhat displaced and Sorkin decided his new politically charged drama was the way to go. That being the case, the curtain fell on Sports Night.
Its unfortunate Sports Night had to be sacrificed so The West Wing could succeed. Looking back though, it’s clear to see that Sports Night paved the way for Sorkin’s future work. It has all the elements that make his shows so great; rapid dialogue, walk-and-talk sequences at every turn and characters that are both very real and fantastic at the same time. If you’re a fan of The West Wing or Studio 60 you will instantly love Sports Night.
Special features include:
Episode: “Kafelnikov”, Commentary by: Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Josh Charles, Timothy Davis-Reed, Joshua Malina, and Ron Ostrow
Episode: “The Local Weather”, Commentary by: Josh Charles and Joshua Malina
Episode: “Quo Vadimus”, Commentary by: Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme
Bonus Disc Features:
- Looking Back with Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme
- Inside the Locker Room: The Technical Innovations of Sports Night
- Gag Reel