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10 January 2009

Sports Night: an overdue review

By // TV

I couldn’t resist giving Sports Night it’s own review. Sorkin is my favourite TV writer of all time. Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause are among my favourite actors ever on television (on Sports Night and later on Desperate Housewives, Six Feet Under and Dirty Sexy Money). Tommy Schlamme’s direction revolutionized the genre. The series (and it’s 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Box Set) deserves at least one more post- so here it is:

Let’s start with the dialogue. It is often said that Sorkin’s dialogue is composed much like a symphony. Each character has a distinct voice and they all meld together like instruments in an orchestra. For example, Isaac has a characteristic sarcastic drone while Jeremy speaks with a notably brighter staccato sound, but Isaac can say in 3 words what Jeremy says in 12. Despite these differences, all the characters speak with intelligence and passion, their dialogue laden with references to everything from Ferguson Jenkins (MLB pitcher) to The Lion King (Broadway musical) to the geographical location of Helsinki (Finland). The distinct, varied and fast-paced dialogue is a big part of what makes the show so unique and engaging.

And what’s Sorkin dialogue without a signature Schlamme walk and talk? Tommy Schlamme took Sports Night out of the constraints of the 3-camera sitcom and gave it life and movement. The Sports Night set is built like a real television studio, allowing the characters to move from location to location without breaking the pace of the scene.

Such a dialogue-based show could have been in danger of stagnancy but Schlamme’s direction makes it anything but.

Since Sports Night is, in essence, about teamwork, it’s appropriate to also acknowledge the achievements in the technical world. A large portion of the shots in Sports Night contains any number of television monitors, each broadcasting something different.

Whether it is footage of Dan and Casey in the studio, a live feed from Mt. Everest or a pre-recorded football game, the time, effort and attention to detail paid to these essential pieces is quite astounding and unique in the television landscape.

Unique is a word that describes many aspects of the show; the spit-fire dialogue, groundbreaking directorial style and intricate technical details just barely begin to cover what makes Sports Night special. The stories, characters and relationships are what really keep me coming back to this fantastic show.

No sitcom had dealt with such weighty issues since MASH. Sports Night comes out swinging, dealing with divorce, abuse of power, illegal drug use and drunk driving within the first 2 episodes.

By the end of the first season they have tackled sexual assault in a big way with a multi-episode arc about Natalie and a football player called Christian Patrick. One of the season’s most poignant episodes is when Isaac takes an on-air stand against the persecution of 6 young football players who refuse to play under the confederate flag; another tackles the issue of homelessness in New York City in a way that puts it all in perspective. One major character has an emotional breakdown, another has a stroke and yet another receives a death threat. The Sports Night characters suffer emotional tolls as well as physical ones as they battle their way through stories of true love, great loss, prejudice, passion, fear, loyalty, friendship, and everything else. But it’s funny; did I mention that it’s funny? It’s REALLY funny, delightful actually. There’s just the right amount of banter, just the right amount of whimsy, of physical comedy, of irony, to make the journey a lighthearted one.

Dealing with all this is a cast of characters so diverse and so engaging that it’s hard not to wish they were real. The supporting cast, the studio technicians and junior producers, are fully developed characters unto themselves. The guest stars are fascinating, everyone from the complex and enticing ratings man Sam Donovan (William H. Macy) to the slimy network rep JJ to Dana’s mournful football player brother Kyle, who gets caught in a steroids scandal. But it’s the main 6 that make the show what it is.

I’ll start with Jeremy, my least favourite of the lot. At times Jeremy, played by Joshua Malina, is a bit too much. He can be too eccentric, too emotional, too encyclopedic, but his dedication and what Dana calls “quixotic” nature save him at times. And who can forget that poker scene with Natalie, “Just this once, I’m asking you to trust me when I tell you that you have three 7s and I have a straight”.

And speaking of Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), she’s adorable, if a tad annoying. In her most triumphant moments (nailing that breaking news story on Dana’s night off, confronting Christian Patrick) Natalie is a formidable and professional woman. In her stubborn and self-assured delusions (her confidence in her poker abilities, her refusal to be broken up with, her romantic advice to Dana) she’s endearingly human. It’s only when Natalie tries to be cute that she ceases to be so.

Dana, Casey and Dan (Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause and Josh Charles respectively) I’ll explore more in relation to each other when I talk about the relationships on the show. Suffice it to say that the three of them are some of the coolest characters I’ve ever met (you know, in the fictional world in my head, where I get to meet characters).

Then there’s Isaac Jaffe, managing editor of Sports Night (the show within the show). Played by Robert Guillaume both pre and post-stroke, Isaac is the rock of the show. He has his moments of weakness of course, but it’s the way he overcomes them and what he represents to the people who work for him that mark Isaac’s importance to the series. When everyone else is flailing, Isaac keeps his head. What can be more representative of Isaac’s role within the world of the show than the first season finale? Isaac re-enters the Sports Night newsroom for the first time after his stroke and in doing so gives Dana the “one good thing” that she needed in order to keep her head up after a series of disasters.

It’s in relation to the people around him that Isaac makes sense in the context of the series. How people relate to him reveals who they really are. That’s the way it is with many of the Sports Night characters. Jeremy didn’t really come alive until he told Natalie he loved her. The way Dan serves as a mentor to Natalie says so much about both of them. Dana’s daughterly regard for Isaac needs no explanation.

It’s for this reason that to really understand Sports Night you have to take a closer look at the 2 central love stories: Casey & Dana and Casey & Dan. Natalie and Jeremy may be full of romance, but the real stories are with Casey and his 2 great loves.

Casey and Dana have one of the more complex and human TV relationships I’ve ever encountered. They were friends for 15 years, from college. Dana understands Casey like no one else does, standing by him through his abusive marriage and guiding him through his divorce with patience and understanding. And Casey loves Dana back. Early in season 1 they throw down, Dana accusing Casey of coming onto her whenever his life falls apart, calling him on unfair behaviour and asking him to stop. I thought this was one of the more interesting spins on the possibly non-platonic friends story. But then they backtrack on the whole thing. Natalie won’t let it rest, insisting that Dana is in love with Casey and vice versa. So they give in, surrendering to the ideal that maybe they are meant to be together. But they screw it up, completely consistent with their characters, and then move on, letting it go and staying friends. First time through the series I thought this was pathetic. I thought that Casey should have learned to not unfairly turn to Dana for love when he needed attention and that would be the end of their romantic potential.

 Then when that angle was abandoned I thought that at the end of season 1 Casey should kiss Dana and they would live happily ever after as the perfect “When Harry Met Sally” couple. So then that didn’t work and I figured they could break up but only if the friendship was irreparably ruined, affected by lost love, or some romantic ideal of the like. The fact that the show couldn’t decide what these 2 were going to be seemed like bad storytelling to me; I thought it was inconsistent, backtracking and rewriting their dynamic for ratings or something. But on a second viewing I saw something more in the Casey/Dana saga. I realized that life is not a TV show (I know, I’m just realizing this now?). It is never clear, not even in their most romantic stages, how Casey and Dana really feel about one another. They love each other, that’s unmistakable, but what the nature of that love is, that’s unknowable (unless you’re inside Sorkin’s head). Maybe they were in love all along, maybe their fight in season 1 is them covering up their true feelings and maybe they resolve to be friends despite broken hearts in the end because they can’t bare to live completely without one another. Or maybe they were always friends, true, unmovable friends, who got caught up in what everyone else thought they were until they found their way out of perception and back to the reality of their platonic love. Or maybe it really was just inconsistent writing.

But I choose the lack of answers, it rings true to me. I think the complexity of their ever-changing dynamic is very human; what’s more human than lack of certainty? And as for them, no worries about their level of romantic interest, just as for them as them- I love them. I love the way they challenge each other, the way they understand each other. I love how Dana knows exactly how Casey will react to something and how upset she gets when she thinks that he doesn’t have faith in her. I love how much trust Casey has in Dana and how they demand the best from each other. I love that Dana’s never afraid to put Casey in his place and how Casey will stand up to anybody to defend Dana. I just love them, as lovers, as friends, or as whatever the heck they are.

Whether his love for Dana is pure and chaste or not, Casey’s love for Dan is clear, strong and unquestionable. The friendship of Dan and Casey is the center of the show. Full of mutual respect and camaraderie, Dan and Casey’s relationship seems simple. But, much like Dan as a character, whom I never appreciated for his complexity and sheer awesomeness until my second viewing of the series, the Dan/Casey dynamic is as fascinating as it is fun. They banter, and it’s funny, but it pays to notice that the dialogue is always instigated by Dan. It becomes clear, within minutes of the show’s opening shots, how loyal Dan is to Casey;

When Casey’s struggling on the air because of his divorce and is in danger of losing his job, Dan tells the network that he’ll do the show with Casey or he’ll walk out the door right behind him. And even though it comes to light that Casey turned down “Conan’s show” to work with Dan, it never seems quite like an even give and take. But then, in season 2, it takes a turn. Dan finally falls.

You see it’s hard to be seen as someone who catches their friends when they fall if you’re always trying to stand back up while they’ve been standing tall the whole time. In season 2 Dan breaks down, everything, from his brother’s death to his father’s indifference to Rebecca’s rejection comes falling down on top of his head and, finally, as Dan’s feeling the impact, Casey tries to build a shield. But then they break. The friendship worked for years, with Casey as the morose and troubled one, with Dan jovially lifting him. But Casey miscalculates; Casey always demands the best from those around him, unfortunately giving little thought to what they’re going through or how patient they were with him when he wasn’t at his best. So when Dan let’s Casey down Casey doesn’t handle it like Dan would have, and they dissolve. Their fight only ends when Casey finally tells Dan that he wouldn’t trade what they have for the world. So they’re fine, they’re them again, and they’ve always been pretty great together.

As the series nears its end and the threat of CSC’s destruction looms, Dan’s inferiority complex and complicated arc comes to light once more. Faced with a great job offer in LA and the knowledge that Casey has to stay in New York to be with his son, Dan prepares himself to make the choice to move away from the man to whom he attributes his greatness, his partner in crime, his wingman, his backup, his best friend. The show’s happy and somewhat abrupt ending leaves the audience without the knowledge of what Dan would have decided, but the very contemplation of success without Casey means progress for Dan, at least in my opinion. Dan, in many ways, is the show’s heart. He represents loyalty and morality and empathy. He brings out the righteousness in Isaac, the courage in Jeremy and the determination in Natalie. And in Casey, his best friend, Dan may reveal some weakness, but he also brings out his best. Did that all make sense?

Ultimately, Sports Night is full of sap. It’s a show about best friends, about a makeshift family, about teamwork, hard work, passion and dedication. Sports serve not just as a backdrop for drama but as a reflection of life and a reminder of what people are capable of. Sports Night is every sappy inspirational sports movie you ever saw (The Mighty Ducks, A League of Their Own, Remember the Titans), but it’s also character, comedy, drama and technological innovation in nicely packaged 22 minute installments.

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