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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sports Night: “Pilot”/"The Apology"

Illustration for article titled Sports Night: “Pilot”/"The Apology"
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“Pilot” (season 1 episode 1, original airdate 9/22/98)

Before the DVR, before ESPN News, before the internet, there was SportsCenter. If you’re of a certain age, and you love (or once loved) sports (or a sport), you remember. As Noel Murray has chronicled on this site in various contexts, SportsCenter was appointment viewing in our house for most of the nineties. It wasn’t just the highlights; it was the personalities, the off-the-cuff and often fannish approach to the subject, and the sheer profusion of games that could be mined for material. SportsCenter made your local eleven o’clock news show’s five minutes of sports look like an undergraduate submission for an Intro to Broadcasting assignment: thin, out of place, lightweight, amateurish.

By 1998, as so often happens with long-running shows, SportsCenter had begun to eat itself. Some of its dominant personalities, like Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann, were leaving the network and fanning the flames of media firestorms. And the internet was changing how we got our sports fixes. So when ABC debuted a new half-hour comedy called Sports Night on September 22 of that year, I got the premise—a SportsCenter-like show on a fictional twenty-four-hour cable sports channel—but I didn’t think of it as the SportsCenter show. No, to movie geeks like Noel and me, it was first and foremost the Aaron Sorkin show, Sorkin being famous for the crackerjack writing in A Few Good Men (based on his play) and The American President, and for his work as a high-profile script doctor on The Rock and Bulworth. Secondarily, we might have been excited to see Felicity Huffman on our TV screens, since we were big David Mamet fans and she was a member of his regular troupe of players.

For the last four summers I’ve written in this space about NewsRadio, another of my favorite television shows from the nineties. When we tuned in for the pilot to see what we undoubtedly thought of as the Dave Foley show (because of our prior experience as devotees of Kids In The Hall reruns on Comedy Central), we might have been unprepared for the structural genius that was about to be unleashed on the sitcom format, but in outward form, at least, what we got was what we expected. It was a sitcom. It had a studio audience, to whose laughter the actors played. Wacky characters cracked jokes.

By contrast, nobody had ever seen a show quite like Sports Night on broadcast television. The precursor it most resembled was The Larry Sanders Show on HBO, with its single-camera style, backstage setting, and motormouth pacing. The cold open of “Pilot,” with the camera following staff members from set to control room and back again, dialogue from a half-dozen actors pieced together like parquet flooring, the ongoing countdown to air, the promise and peril of live performance—it’s a manifesto for a new kind of show. An Aaron Sorkin show. And even though we’ve seen a lot of Sorkinese since 1998, in The West Wing and The Social Network and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, it’s still damned thrilling.

Josh Charles and Peter Krause, playing Sports Night anchors “Dan Rydell alongside Casey McCall,” were relatively unknown quantities when the show premiered. Charles had been in the ensemble of Dead Poets Society, and Krause had a regular role on the Chuck Lorre Cybill Shepherd vehicle Cybill. Charles is now one of my favorite actors, and I was prepared for both of the leads to look shockingly young from a distance of nearly fifteen years, but what actually startles me now is the seasoned confidence Charles exudes from his very first moment on the show. As is the case with many pilots shot several months before the series is picked up and aired, hairstyles change and interest rates fluctuate; in this case, Krause’s blow-dried ‘do becomes something far less distracting by Episode 2.

The real stars of Sports Night, though, are Sorkin’s words, and the tightrope act that the show pioneered on television was combining those words and that inimitable style with human actors. It’s not unlike Mamet, although less mannered; audiences who are driven crazy by Mametese find it easier to pretend that people talk the way Sorkin writes. Or more likely, we would like to live in a world where people are that witty, that idiosyncratic, that quick, that passionate.

Two moments from the pilot stand out in my memory. Casey is depressed about his recent divorce, cynical about the job of promoting sports, and not performing well on air, bringing the wrath of the network suits down on executive producer Dana Whittaker (Huffman) and managing editor Isaac Jaffe (the magisterial Robert Guillaume). Meanwhile, in a very Sorkinesque bit of business, Dan is publicly proclaiming to everyone how much he is enjoying the city. At the end of our first-ever walk through the open-plan office, Dan declares in answer to an innocuous question about how the anchors are doing: “Casey slept in his office and I’m having a New York Renaissance.”

At the end of the episode, after Casey has had his faith in sports and his connection to his son restored by an African track athlete making a bid for the record books at age 41, the two get ready to do a live “tease” for the evening’s broadcast. Dan suggests that he do the talking, but Casey disagrees. “It’s not that my teases are better than yours, Danny,” he says with what we are to understand is the old swagger. “It’s that yours are vastly inferior to mine.”

Those two lines made me understand, back in 1998, that I was watching something really exciting. The job of the sitcom is always to combine plot, character, and comedy. What Sorkin brought was the power of the compound sentence. His show was like Grand Central Station, with plot, character, and comedy cars coming and going, switching tracks smoothly, coupling and decoupling into new combinations, and all somehow without crashing into each other. “Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” Language begets structure and engenders movement. Just as the cliched advice to improv performers would have it, the engine that drives everything is “and.” Sorkin wants to create a show with generosity that shows in the page length of the scripts. And he’s crazy enough to try to do it in a scant half hour, minus commercials.

“The Apology” (season 1 episode 2, original airdate 9/29/98)

With the magical, faith-restoring African runner in the pilot, we get our first sense of how another Sorkin trademark—moral and political clarity, and the difficulty of expressing it in corporate and bureaucratic settings—will play in this setting. In “The Apology,” Dan has given an interview where he expresses the personal opinion that the U.S. war on drugs is a failure and that pot should be legalized. Network suits (led by Paul David Graf, best known as Sergeant Tackleberry and just a few years away from a fatal heart attack) demand an apology on air, and Isaac promises they will get one.

When somebody takes a passionate social position on an Aaron Sorkin-written episode, there’s little doubt that it’s a position Sorkin either holds or is quite willing to talk himself into. Part of the reason liberals love his work, it must be confessed, is the charge we get from seeing our worldview argued for by such attractive, articulate people. Frequently we witness the characters try out different versions of their case to different audience before the stirring definitive statement. That’s what happens here when Dan (attired in a spectacularly ill-conceived baggy sweatshirt) tells the suits that even though decriminalization isn’t a mainstream position, neither at a certain point in time was the idea that black people should sit wherever they want on a bus. “No rich young white guy has even gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks,” Isaac schools him afterwards.

I’m apt to be skeptical about the Big Speech for any work of dramatic art that so blatantly is building to one. Yet I admire the way Dan’s apology is handled. The import of the moment is amplified by the live TV setting, which gets signalled not only by the usual cuts to people in the control room waiting breathlessly to see what will happen, but also, subtly, by the switch between video (for the broadcast shot) and film (for the on-set perspectives). The writing picks up two threads running throughout the episode in addition to the will-he-or-won’t-he about the apology itself; one is Dan’s statement that he hasn’t smoked pot for eleven years (a number the suits seize on as evidence that he’s a recovering addict of some sort), and the other—this one nearly invisible—is the repeated bursts of outrage on the part of the staff when told that Dan will apologize: “To who?”

And then as always (or nearly so), Sorkin turns off the speechifying by acknowledging that at the end of the day, these are people at work, and their lives will go on with the trivial personal concerns that define their relationship much more than their political beliefs, like Casey’s ignorance of how to be cool (and of how the Starlight Vocal Band relates to that ignorance). It’s the kind of thing David E. Kelly can never figure out how to do on his shows: turning on a dime from the biggest to the smallest. Sorkin’s settings help; unlike law offices (at least ones on TV), sports and government are self-acknowledged breeding grounds for minutiae. As we head through Season 1 this summer, we’ll have plenty of chances to talk about how Sports Night’s setting and stories interact with its signature style and patter-spewing cast.

So … stick around.

Grades: "Pilot," B; "The Apology," B+

Stray observations:

  • They won’t all be this long, folks, I promise. Introducing the show and the areas of analysis that motivate me to write about it won’t be something I have to do each week.
  • Which will leave more room to talk about what actually happens in the episodes. Not one word appears above about Natalie or Jeremy, for example, which is obviously absurd given how much I love Josh Malina and how this is the best role he’s ever gotten, and how great are the thanks I owe him for co-creating Celebrity Poker Showdown.
  • Jeremy gets a terrific showcase in “The Apology” trying to put together a brief highlight packages for a baseball game and failing because of his belief that almost every moment of the game is crucial. “In your search for things that are newsworthy, let the word ‘routine’ signal a danger zone,” Casey counsels after Jeremy acknowledges that the first at-bat of the game, shown in its entirety, was a routine ground-out.
  • By the time the series goes into production, the Sorkinesque rhythms and character traits are far more developed (or perhaps the production process is far looser, letting them bleed through) than was the case in the pilot. Natalie is a font of unrestrained TMI (“I may have certain feelings for Jeremy … these feelings have been growing inside of me in a rush, or surge …”), Dana tries to signal her care for Casey by asking him if he has a whisk (“I can’t just use a fork?” “Truthfully, you can”), and everybody tends to repeat things to each other (“Sachs has seen it.” “It’s been on the newsstand for four hours, and Sachs has seen it?” “Sachs has seen it”).
  • We’ll talk more about the laugh track in future installments. For now, I’ll just mention how poorly it’s integrated into the pilot. Until midway through the first act, it’s so minimal that you might think you’re overhearing reaction to a politely humorous interchange elsewhere in your house.
  • Can I have a ringtone of Josh Charles saying, with great gusto and satisfaction, “The Metropolitan Opera under the baton of Mr. James Levine”?