Our reviews of Sports Night: The Complete First Season (published April 8th, 2010) and Sports Night: The Complete Series: 10th Anniversary Edition (published October 1st, 2008) are also available.
"I'd brace yourself for a strange show."—Jeremy (Joshua Malina)
There'll be all that, plus all-night romantic angst, hot-button political issues, and character-driven comedy. We'll have beautiful performances, beautiful people, and some of the snappiest dialogue on television. This is Casey McCall (Peter Krause), alongside Dan Rydell (Josh Charles)—and you're watching Sports Night, on DVD from Disney.
Before screenwriter Aaron Sorkin hit it big on television with The West Wing, he flopped with Sports Night. In retrospect, it is easy to see why the show was a failure. First, its pace ran too fast for most television audiences: the characters talk in patter that would not be out of place among the denizens of a 1940s newsroom satire. The storylines were dense, more like an episodic hour-long drama than a 30-minute sitcom. And it was about sports.
Okay, let's stop right there. Sports Night is not merely about sports. Professional sports operates in Sports Night as a microcosm of American society. Political issues—racism, celebrity egos, drugs, professional ethics—all turn up in the guise of "sports" related plots. The series is not about the athletes themselves, but about sports journalism. Sports Night chronicles the constant turmoil at a "SportsCenter"-like nightly wrap-up show on a third-rated sports cable network, the Continental Sports Channel. At the anchor desk, recently divorced Casey is uptight and square (he actually owns Time/Life's "Sounds of the '70s" CDs), but pines for old friend Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), the show's executive producer. "Smoky" Dana may be professionally sharp, but her personal life is in complete disorder. At Casey's side is Dan, flamboyant and outspoken, but with an easily bruised ego.
On either side of Dana back in the control room sit Jeremy (Joshua Malina) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), proof that opposites attract. She is full of fire, if a bit naïve. He is a nerd in every way: sports, computers, weather. And both are just as quick to fight as they are to make love.
Keeping things together week after week is the show's moral center, managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume): ethically resilient, yet a cranky pragmatist, he defends his show and his people right down to the line.
Although ABC shuttled Sports Night around its schedule for two seasons before dumping the series, the complete Sports Night is now available on a bare-bones, six-disc DVD set. The show works even better in this format, where you can watch several episodes in a row and get a feel for its remarkable pace. When I originally discovered the show in reruns on Comedy Central, I found it frustrating that the network would only run two episodes at a time. Each 22-minute episode races by so quickly that you want to go right to the next one, and my wife and I found ourselves watching a whole disc at a time with every sitting with this new set.
Sports Night may be the only sitcom I have ever seen where the show gets better with each viewing. Its pace and density demands attention, and you are likely to miss something the first time around. Besides, it has some of the best dialogue television has seen. Of course, the show's blend of brisk comedy, soap opera relationships, and often somber drama makes it, as noted above, a tough sell for an audience. Indeed, ABC was at a loss about marketing what has come to be called, by default, a "dramedy." Much of the first season was saddled with a lame laugh track, although ironically the dialogue often moves so fast in these episodes that there are few spots in which to insert the laughter, so it often comes long after a string of punch lines. Season 1 also established Sports Night as an "issues" show, touching on the legalization of marijuana, the Confederate flag, fundamentalism, and other left-wing bugaboos familiar by now to West Wing audiences.
By episode 5, the show hits its stride with a dark story in which Natalie is sexually assaulted. But unlike most "very special" sitcom episodes, this story approaches the material with an unsentimental tone, demonstrating that the show's writers know how to handle tough material. The episode also makes it clear that the strongest asset of Sports Night is its terrific cast. Sorkin's trademark dialogue tends to move like instruments in a jazz band, repeating motifs in overlapping fashion. To make it work, a cast must have not only excellent timing, but great chemistry.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the episode that got me hooked on the show. In episode 8, "Thespis," the crew endures Thanksgiving chaos, courtesy of the prankish ghost of theater itself. All the plot threads—Isaac's daughter in labor, Dana's thawing turkey (she stows it in the lighting grid!), Casey forgetting his anniversary with Dan, and a dozen other wild events—weave in and out. The comic moments flow so smoothly into the character-defining dramatic moments that you do not even notice the transitions. And the Thespis conceit reminds us how tenuous the line is between real life and the affectation of the theater (and the television sitcom).
From there, the series kicks into high gear and never slows down. We follow the evolving relationship of Jeremy and Natalie, perennial bachelor Dan and his attempts to prove to himself he can be loved, and Casey and Dana's continuing torment of themselves and each other. Toward the end of season 1, the show even accommodates Robert Guillaume's real-life stroke, opening the door for a courageous comeback performance in season 2 that should have won Guillaume an Emmy—if Emmy voters (like ABC) had a clue how to categorize this show.
Season 2 of Sports Night follows Isaac's struggle to recover his full capabilities, while Casey screws up his courage to woo Dana. The laugh track disappears entirely, and continuity becomes tighter. So does the dramatic tension, as Felicity Huffman's real husband, the always riveting William H. Macy, drops in for a recurring role as acid-tongued ratings expert Sam Donovan. For as little as Macy appears in the show, he creates one of the most fully realized sitcom characters I have ever seen.
Given everything good to say about Sports Night, I wish I could feel better about the fact that Disney dumped this DVD set on the market with no extras. Video and audio are on par with what you would expect from a recent television series, but individual episodes have no chapter breaks. But in spite of the indifferent treatment, the real selling point of Sports Night is the show itself. Most DVD sets of television shows seem rather silly to me, since most television shows do not hold up to repeat viewings. But I found myself just as caught up in Sports Night now as when I first saw the show. And since this set contains the complete 45-episode run (which fortunately establishes some closure by its finale), you do not have to shell out hundreds of dollars to see the story through to its end.
At some point, I thought I should mention, as is apparently the custom with many critics who have reviewed this series since its debut, untimely demise, and spectacular resurrection on DVD, that I could not care less about sports. I watch maybe two football games a year, and perhaps a bit of the World Cup, and that is about it. And this in spite of the fact that my godfather was friends with half the Miami Dolphin lineup in the 1970s and used to get us into the locker room at the end of games.
So, I do not like sports—but I love Sports Night. That should tell you, if nothing else, how entertaining this show is. If you are still unsure, catch an episode or two on Comedy Central (it still runs at some ridiculous hour of the morning) and see if you get caught up in it. But one or two episodes are never enough—they go by far too quickly. This is one series that benefits from the sustained viewing DVD can provide.
In the words of Calvin Trager in the very last episode, "Anybody who can't make money off of Sports Night should get out of the moneymaking business." ABC and Disney are forced to sit in the penalty box for misunderstanding and mistreating a fine series that should have been given a better chance. The cast and crew of Sports Night, the Sorkin series and the cable show it chronicles, are all released.
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