“Kyle Whitaker’s Got Two Sacks” (season two, episode seven; originally aired 12/14/1999)/“The Reunion” (season two, episode eight; originally aired 12/21/1999)
If one were a real killjoy, one could summarize all narrative art in three words: Relationships are hard. That covers love, family, work, politics, even Tom Hanks stuck on a desert island and having to invent a volleyball companion so he can get along with himself. The little two-episode mini-arc about Dana’s younger brother Kyle being implicated in a steroid scandal performs the unoriginal task of showing how difficult it is when a family member shames himself. Those emotions, complex and socially fraught though they might be, have been worked out in drama since the ancient Greeks, and I’m afraid that these episodes have little new to say about the situation, other than that dealing with sports-related family shame when one runs a sports news show might be especially hard.
No, the really interesting relationships in “Kyle Whitaker’s Got Two Sacks” and “The Reunion” are the more casual ones. Family and honor and loyalty and friendship might have universality going for them as story elements, but give me the ephemeral, specific relationships that permeate our times, the ones for which the great narratives of our culture offer little or no guidance. How much of myself is it appropriate to reveal to my coworkers? How do I get a gift for someone I would like to please but don’t know that well? There’s a reason these questions dominate etiquette columns and inspire great Seinfeld episodes. We care deeply about them, despite their shallowness in comparison with the timeless questions of the human condition. That’s the end of the pool, after all, where we spend almost all of our time.
So let’s leave Dana to fret over how angry she is at her brother, because we know that inevitably she’s going to decide to love and support him. Let’s join Dan at the anchor desk where he is trying, in a manner that gets clumsier and more endearingly awkward with every passing moment, to let guest co-anchor Tina (Nadia Dajani of Ned and Stacey) know that his failure to flirt with her isn’t any reflection on her. As he puts it to makeup artist Allison moments before air, “I won’t be flirting with you tonight. Don’t be alarmed, it’s just something that I’m trying. I know it’s hard but I think it’s important. Here we go!” The more honest he tries to be with Tina, the creepier and weirder the situation gets. When she asks during a break how he thinks the show is going, he can’t even say “fine” without making it worse: “I think it’s going well, but rather than, say, banter about it, I’ll just leave it at that.” By the end of the hour he’s begging Isaac for help to “get my reputation back with Tina as a fun and desirable person,” the very opposite of what he set out to do, which was to refuse to care about whether Tina sees him as a fun and desirable person. It’s such a perfect way for Dan to get lost in a hall of mirrors generated by his own neurosis, and best of all, it can all take place through dialogue. This may be the apotheosis of the Sorkin comedy formula. I could watch Josh Charles digging himself deeper into that hole all day long.
In “The Reunion,” Natalie demonstrates how secret Santa should be done: Ask the giftee what he wants, and if it can be obtained in the vicinity for under the prescribed monetary limit, mission accomplished. (Sure, it’s not very secret, but Natalie is right to care about that not a whit: “Cat’s out of the bag!” she confesses brightly after instructing Casey to tell her what he wants.) The recipient gets something good, the giver avoids dithering and trying to read the recipient’s mind, and all the pitfalls of secret Santa are thereby avoided. But Casey fails at every aspect of following her example. He asks Isaac what he wants, sure, but not to streamline the process; instead, Casey seeks to make up for thoughtful but apparently unwanted gifts like last year’s blender (“Twelve speeds,” he reminisces; “Coulda run that thing at Le Mans”) and at the same time wow Isaac with his acumen and generosity. Then he takes the whole recipient-choice principle a step too far. Faced with the instruction “cheese grater” (“I love to grate cheese, lot of different kinds, and they’re not cheap,” Isaac explains, doing his best to turn this secret-Santa occasion into the proving ground of friendship Casey needs it to be), Casey comes back with every grater he could find, all wrapped up, so Isaac can pick the one he wants. And to top it all off, Casey misses Natalie’s deadline for telling her what he wants, and gets, as promised, socks, unceremoniously plunked down in front of him at a meeting where he’s fantasizing over how much fun for both of them a custom mixtape would be.
Isaac, of course, has no strong opinions cheese-graterwise. He never did. Anyone who does would either provide precise instructions to a gift-giver (this is why store registries and Amazon wishlists are such a wonderful modern invention), or buy it themselves. A secret Santa gift is a limp, uninteresting compromise between the nice part about getting a gift (acquiring something without paying for it) and the non-intimate relationship of the parties involved, which of necessity renders the gift far less meaningful than we intuit a gift should be. It’s much like the limp, uninteresting compromise involved in selecting Athlete of the Century. Any unexpected and thought-provoking choice wouldn’t really be Athlete of the Century because, by definition, there are very few qualified candidates and everybody already knows who they are. Suspense and delight are not part of the deal.
Caring enough to pretend like they are—well, as frustrating and unproductive as that is for all involved, is wonderfully sweet, as Isaac acknowledges in that lovely moment where he replaces an award plaque on his shelf with Casey’s cheese grater. Relationships are hard, but when people put so much effort even into the ones that aren’t obligatory, we can’t help but respond with love.
- The subplot in “Kyle Whitaker” where Jeremy can’t bring himself to fire J.J.’s deadbeat nephew is a fascinating example of “relationships are difficult” in that the controlling relationship (J.J. to the show) is entirely abstract, with the human party not even appearing. Jeremy is clearly in the wrong, but his attempt at self-justification to his girlfriend/supervisor (“I’m saying: Let’s let this one thing not be a hassle”) is a tremendous piece of writing and a near-perfect character moment for the oft-beleaguered Jeremy, who likes to think of himself as principled even when he is clearly acting against any recognizable principle. It’s too bad Corbin (the very Christian Slateresque Charlie Finn) has to be turned into a huge douchebag by association with huge douchebag J.J. to get the writers out of the subplot.
- Even though I don’t find the Kyle plot very interesting, and even though the whole “Dana’s on edge” repeating bit in “The Reunion” is excruciating (especially the horrifically sitcommy window-shattering bit), I love what Felicity Huffman does with the moment when she freezes up reading the list of Ohio State players into Dan’s ear during the show.
- Babe Ruth could hit far, but according to Dan this was just compensation for the fact that he couldn’t run. Meanwhile, track and field Olympian, amateur basketball champion, and golf Grand Slam holder Babe Didrikson Zaharias is disqualified, according to Casey, for ranking only second on a list of athletes named Babe. Fun fact: ESPN put her at number 10 on their century list.
- Other possibilities for athlete of the century and/or millennium tossed out by the staff: Jim Thorpe, Pelé (disqualified by Dan because soccer), Melankomas of Caria (famous for his style of avoiding both punching and being punched; disqualified because A.D. 49 is not in this millennium), and Secretariat (disqualified for being a horse, viz.: Jeremy: “When he died, they did an autopsy, you know what they found?” Casey: “Unless you say Jesse Owens you’re not going to win this argument”).
- Isaac’s “famous monk quotation” (“I don't always know what the right thing to do is, my Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you”) is a paraphrase of a longer passage by Thomas Merton in Thoughts In Solitude, and was reused by Sorkin for the “Posse Comitatus” episode of The West Wing a couple of years later.
- Casey doesn’t appreciate having no-nonsense Natalie as his secret Santa: “Like something out of a fairy tale dream,” he mutters sarcastically. But he knows enough to save his airplane snacks for Natalie on both outgoing and return legs of the trip. “Honey roasted peanuts,” she explains to Dana. “You can get ‘em in the store, you know,” Dana offers, and Natalie, right as usual, assures her: “This is better.”