Release Date: Sept 30
Executive Producers: Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause, Robert Guillaume, Josh Charles, Sabrina Lloyd, Joshua Malina?
Studio/Run Time: ABC/TRT/Shout! Factory, 20 hrs.
Sorkin rewrote the rulebooks with this character-driven sitcom
The workplace has long been a productive venue for sitcoms. From the studios of WKRP in Cincinnati and Mary Tyler Moore’s WJM-TV to a bar named Cheers and, most recently, a paper supply company in Scranton, Pa., the drudgery of the work and ineptitude of the workers have provided light laughs for Americans at the end of the day. But as a screenwriter for films like A Few Good Men and The American President, Aaron Sorkin loved his job and was very good at it. So, naturally, when he developed his first TV series for ABC 10 years ago, he filled it with characters who loved their jobs and were very good at them.
More than the rapid-fire dialogue or deft blend of comedy and drama,
it’s the utter competence of the sportscasters and producers that
quickly separates Sports Night from the other 30-minute
laugh-tracked TV shows of the ’90s. The bosses are smart and helpful,
except when they’re meddlesome network executives. You’re held
accountable for mistakes, but your co-workers always have your back.
Instead of the classic reliance on miscommunication for situational
comedy, the tension arises from a pressure to excel in the national
spotlight, and the humor comes from genuinely funny characters.
The series takes place on the set of a sports-news show also called Sports Night,
but Sorkin cast his net much wider than just sports fans. Co-anchors
Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and producers
Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina) and
Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) all love sports, but they’re equally
interested in the human drama inside the games they cover. And the
passion they have for the NFL draft or a long jumper’s effort to break
a world record flows from an intellectual curiosity that extends to
other areas of life. Dan is never more excited than when he gets a
chance to meet Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and never more wrecked
than when he realizes he’s confused “secular” and “non-secular” in her
presence. Jeremy has trouble cutting a Cubs-game recap shorter than
eight-and-a-half minutes because he’s obsessed with a battle between
pitcher and batter that results in a routine grounder, but he’s also a
computer whiz who can wax poetic about Thespis of Icaria. The series is
filled with similarly wonderful geeks, which might have had more to do
with its poor ratings than the fact that a show called Sports Night was scaring off non-sports fans.
In Season One, Sorkin was still ironing the kinks out of the style he perfected for West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset? Strip.
He worked hard to respect his audience’s intelligence with clever
dialogue and heady subject matter, but the laugh track he
unsuccessfully fought against insulted it. The music can likewise be
?manipulative and almost cheesy (nothing as good as Jeff Buckley’s
“Hallelujah” playing as CJ Craig’s secret service agent is gunned down
while trying to prevent a robbery in The West Wing). And Sorkin overuses the monologue-to-an-uninterested-party device.
But with film-worthy writing and the best cast ever assembled for a
sitcom (Robert Guillaume shone both pre- and post-stroke and William H.
Macy was a regular guest), Sports Night changed the trajectory
of television. It was a half-hour comedy with better, more emotional
storylines than most hour-long dramas. It was one of the first hybrids
of a multi-camera and single-camera show, benefiting from the strengths
of both approaches. And its echoes could be felt in some of the best
shows that followed: the volleys of witty repartee between Lorelai and
Rory Gilmore, The Sopranos’ psychiatrist scenes, and the meta-story lines about the show’s impending cancelation in Arrested Development.
This new Sports Night box set includes commentary from just about everyone who had anything to do with the show, as well as its fans at ESPN’s SportsCenter.
All well and good, but we could've at least hoped for a few outtakes
and some more expansive extras. As it stands, all we have are 45
episodes of one of the smartest comedies ever to air on a major
network, and the memories of those who made it.