Shout! Factory // 1998 // 510 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 8th, 2010
It's about sports. The same way Charlie's Angels was about law enforcement.
"Look, I got into this because I like getting people to like sports. And I've turned into a PR man for punks and thugs. And any atrocity, no matter how ridiculous, or hideous, or childish, it doesn't matter. I make it sports. Ten-cent bagman whacks a skater's leg with a crowbar, that's sports. Second round draft pick gets cranky in a Houston bar, and that's sports. And let's not forget the mother of all great sports stories -- a double homicide in Brentwood."
Dan Rydell (Josh Charles, In Treatment) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause, Six Feet Under) are the hosts of Sports Night, a SportsCenter-inspired show in which the two hosts examine the exciting sports-related events of the day. The show is produced by Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives), who is very good at her job but not particularly good at managing her personal life. Her right-hand assistant is Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd, Sliders), a bright and ambitious woman whose career seems to be taking off. Natalie has strong feelings for her co-worker Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina, In Plain Sight), a nerdy fellow with a passion for sports statistics and weather patterns. The man in charge of the entire operation is Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume, The Lion King), who mostly just wants to enjoy his relatively low-key job and stay out of the never-ending drama his staff gets caught up in.
Sports Night is the story of these six people; the show they produce, the relationships they form and the many moments of humor and human connection they experience inside their frantic studio.
When I was a kid, I was a big sports fan. Specifically, I was a big baseball fan. I loved watching the games, crunching the numbers, analyzing the statistics, collecting the cards, pretending to be my favorite players in the backyard, the whole deal. As I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the business-driven nature of the sport. It seemed more and more players would dismiss team loyalty in the blink of an eye, if it meant getting a few extra bucks somewhere else. What had once been a pure game, in my eyes, was becoming tainted by my ever-increasing amount of perspective. Before long, I more or less lost interest in the sport and was never really able to get back into it.
During the first episode of Sports Night, Casey McCall is beginning to experience a similar level of disillusionment. Sure, it may be partially inspired by the fact that he was recently divorced and it's given him a nastier outlook on life, but he's really starting to grow frustrated with just how little purity seems to be left in the world of sports. The top stories he reports on frequently have nothing to do with actual athletics but rather with the scandalous activities of spoiled big-name athletes. He's tired of it and his lack of enthusiasm is affecting the program. People can tell that he's just not really into it anymore. Then something happens: an aging long-distance runner is on track to break an all-time record. Casey turns on the television and watches in fascination as the middle-aged man triumphantly works his way towards the finish line. He picks up the telephone and calls his 7-year-old son, tearfully urging him to turn on the television and just watch. It's a beautiful, immensely touching moment that serves as a powerful reminder of just what made so many of us fall in love with sports in the first place: the inspirational thrill of seeing human beings overcoming great obstacles and achieving something remarkable.
It's also one of the first of many moments of great television in the career of Aaron Sorkin, who would later go on to create The West Wing (to date still regarded by most as his crowning achievement). What could have been a very ordinary workplace sitcom (see the similarly-constructed by far-less-ambitious Back to You for an example of what I mean) frequently turns into something more, evolving and growing as it progresses into something so unexpectedly special that it's easy to forget you're even watching a sitcom.
Most of the tendencies that define Sorkin's work are on full display in Sports Night: the walk n' talk conversations, the fast-paced dialogue and quick-witted banter, the lengthy character monologues and the ability to turn on a dime from goofy comedy to heartfelt drama without missing a beat. I'll grant you that a few of these emotional moments come across as a bit heavy-handed at times, but they're frequently so incredibly affecting because A) they come at such unexpected moments, and B) they're presented with such complete sincerity by Sorkin's writing and the performances of the actors. Try not to be moved when Natalie accepts Jeremy's awkward romantic gesture, or when Casey really opens up with Dan about something that happened in his past, or when Isaac decides to take a stand on a political issue that the network bosses have told him to avoid.
It's been said that Sports Night isn't really about sports. I don't quite buy that argument (there are some very strong moments that are quite directly about sports), but I will agree with the idea that Sports Night is about a lot more than sports. There's a lot to enjoy, from the in-depth look at the workings of a television show to the numerous will they/won't they relationship subplots to the show's tendency to really dig into the personal lives of the characters and allow us to get to know them. Oh, and the laughs. Yeah, there are laughs and the show is written with a lot of wit, but that seems secondary in contrast to the show's greatest achievements.
The performances are strong across the board, though I'm particularly enamored with the work of Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause. Huffman pulls off a particularly tricky balancing act, giving us a character who is both the strongest and most vulnerable member of the Sports Night team. She's so intensely dedicated to doing her job well that pretty much everything else gets left behind; meaning that her personal life is a mess and she has trouble functioning outside of her "zone." Huffman draws out both the heartbreak and hilarity of her character; she's a pure joy to watch every time she's onscreen. Meanwhile, Krause turns Casey McCall into a genuinely complex character that defies any generic sitcom stereotype. He could have been the "uptight one" in contrast to Charles' "fun one," but Krause makes everything Casey does seem completely believable. What a natural screen presence he has; his assured calm plays nicely against the frenzied tone of the show. The whole cast does fine work, though. The level of chemistry between everyone involved (particularly Krause and Charles) is excellent.
How about the transfer and supplements? Sadly, I think we need to move along to the next section in order to discuss those...
The complete series of Sports Night was originally released back in 2002 in a bare-bones box set that offered no special features whatsoever. In 2008, a 10th anniversary edition was released that added some commentaries and documentaries. Unfortunately, the transfer and audio was not improved one bit from the ho-hum presentation of the previous set. Now, we're getting an individual season release...but why? The transfer is exactly the same; too soft and flat for the most part considering that this show is just over a decade old. The audio is unimpressive, with Snuffy Walden's slightly obnoxious music often being a bit too loud in contrast to everything else. You get five audio commentaries with cast and crew plus a couple of documentaries, but all of this was contained in the complete series set (which is available for just a few dollars more than this first-season set). Why would anyone want to buy just the first season with so little incentive to do so? I assume a second-season release is just around the corner, but I still don't really see the point.
Then there's also the matter of the laugh track. Sorkin and co. didn't want a laugh track on Sports Night, but during the first season the network forced one on them anyway. The result is one of the oddest, least-effective laugh tracks in the history of television. The laughter is obviously canned, feeling out-of-place and awkward when dialed up during moments that ought to inspire light chuckles rather than knee-slapping guffaws. As the season progresses, the volume of the track is dialed down so much that you can barely hear it. In the later episodes, the track is usually only employed once or twice per episode, which only makes it increasingly awkward since you've gotten used to not hearing it most of the time. It's not a deal-killer by any means (this show is too good for small stuff like this to get in the way), but it's a nuisance. Thankfully, the laugh track was dropped altogether for the second season.
Though I find this single-season release a bit pointless, the show itself is a heartfelt treasure that deserves to be remembered. However you may choose to go about it, just be sure that you watch Sports Night one way or another.
The series is free to go, but this box set is guilty of indulging in a pointless bit of double-dipping.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 510 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries