If Judge Kristin Munson ever opens a sports-themed bondage club, she's calling it The Penalty Box.
Rebecca: Have people ever tried to kill you?
Sports Night is living proof that television execs hate us and want us to be miserable. Why should we be able to enjoy genuinely intelligent comedy when we can watch According to Jim while weeping the tears of a velvet painting clown, nursing an inner hurt that only the purchase of candy bars, diet colas, and cell phone plans can assuage. It's great for the companies buying advertising time, not so much for the viewers at home.
Facts of the Case
Chronicling the daily drama and office discord at a cable sports show, Sports Night is a workplace comedy of hook-ups and shake-ups.
Dana (Felicity Huffman, Transamerica) and Natalie (Sabrina Loyd, Sliders) keep things running in the production booth while Casey (Peter Krause, Dirty Sexy Money) and Dan (Josh Charles, In Treatment) handle writing and hosting. Jeremy (Joshua Malina, The West Wing) is the newest employee and resident fact-checker, and Isaac (Robert Guillaume, Lean on Me) keeps the network brass off everyone's backs.
Sports Night: The Complete Series 10th Anniversary Edition contains all 45 episodes from the series' two season run, along with two discs of added content.
When you come right down to it, Sports Night isn't so radically different from regular sitcoms. It has the typical sitcom setup of a core group of five friends bonding, arguing, and burying their romantic feelings for each other so that writers can milk many seasons from the sexual tension. It uses a lot of the usual sitcom story prompts, like a character buying an object they can't figure out how to use, or coworkers fighting over a promotion. It even tempts fate by trotting out Ted McGinley and several "Very Special Episodes," traditional sitcom killers, very early in the first season.
What sets the series apart, even now that comedies shot on film without a laugh track have become mainstream, is its verbal style. Conversations are filmed in long, continues takes, and everyone talks very quickly and always has the perfect reply, even if it involves knowing about 2,000 year old ghosts and tiny French emperors. It's like a '40s screwball comedy with an added layer of nerd. The "walk and talk" is now creator/writer Aaron Sorkin's trademark, but it hasn't been applied to a comedy since Sports Night got the heave-ho.
There's just the right dose of realism to overcome how brainy everyone at the CSC Network seems. Jeremy is tailor made to be the nice-guy nerd and Dan the office goof, but the scripts play around with everyone's roles because in real-life people are more complicated than a sitcom label. The first season allows a week to pass from one episode to the next and, even in those "special episodes," the schmaltz factor is low. The very second episode of the series, "The Apology," takes the same cautionary tale of driving under the influence that we've all heard a dozen times in health class and turns it into something gut-wrenching by framing it as an on-air apology to the victim. Once I saw that, I knew this was a series that didn't think of me as an idiot, but as someone at least as smart as the characters on it, and that is a rare and fantastic feeling. Season 2 doesn't handle these moments quite as well, and the series sags a little under the ponderous emotional weight Sorkin piles on in the name of "drama."
The lead actors all moved on to bigger and better-rated programs after Sports Night ended, but they really seem to be at the top of their games here, when cut loose from mugging for a studio audience and allowed to get on with their skilled cast members and their rapid-fire repartee.
Ten years on, and Sports Night has aged well, with only a slight dusting of grain to the picture and the original 2.0 stereo sounding pretty sharp. The 2002 series release came with such exciting extras as closed captioning and…well, that was about it. Shout! Factory comes roaring to the rescue with this 10th Anniversary release. For starters, there's a gag reel for each season and ABC's series promos, something left off of newer TV DVDs like Ugly Betty. Then there's eight episode commentaries. Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlammie team up on the first and final episodes of the series and a rotating team of actors comment on five more. Here's what makes Shout! Factory great: they don't just get bigger cast members like Peter Krause and Josh Charles to sit in, they bring in the recurring cast and, on the episode that won an Emmy for best editing, the actual editor. It's thorough and thoughtful touches like this that make the set great.
Four episode-length featurettes discuss everything from the nuts and bolts of set design and camera work to casting and show creation. Although there's only so many times you can hear Sorkin tell the same story or gush about Felicity Huffman, it's worth sitting through the overlap when there's also rare stuff like the video Get-Well card made after Robert Guillaume's stroke. Rather than simple episode listings, the included booklet has an intro from Sorkin, a blueprint of the Sport Night set and quotes and trivia from selected episodes. Some of the summaries are a little too detailed though, so if you're new to the series or haven't seen it in a while, read at your own risk.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just about the only thing Shout! doesn't include on the new edition are the closed captions from the original, and the rat-a-tat nature of the dialogue makes that a necessary option, even if you're not hard of hearing. Also, layer changes are disguised by commercial breaks that results in the occasional lag from one scene to the next. This is especially noticeable on my copy of Disc 7, where the pauses last several seconds and "April is the Cruelist Month" locks up 10 minutes in and won't let me access the rest of the episode. Whether this is a fluke in my set or the entire production run remains to be seen.
Seeing as how the Shout! Factory upgrade is just that and not a double dip with a new hat, Sport Night: The Complete Series 10th Anniversary Edition is a must have for fans of smart, dialogue-driven comedy. But buyer beware, and double check your discs to be sure you're not shut-out of episodes.
For the technical flaws that kept this set from a perfect score, Shout! Factory is assigned a 10 yard penalty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "The Show" Featurette
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