This week (but not for the last time, I’m sure) let’s talk about the Big Speech and the Big Fight. Both are entertainment moments many of us have come to dread for their mannered artificiality. Writers love to write Big Speeches, apparently, because there are so very many of them cluttering our TV shows and movies. Actors love to play Big Fights, apparently, because they get to thrash all over the set and sometimes destroy props or show off their fake-slap techniques. Our episodes conveniently feature examples of each category. Time for a TV Club Breakdown™.
“The Hungry And The Hunted” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/6/98)
Last week commenters made much mockery of the Sorkin Stutter (to coin a phrase), Aaron Sorkin’s penchant for having multiple characters repeat a phrase multiple times in lieu of actual comedy, and the example trotted out was “you’re getting The Call.” That would be The Call that Jeremy gets this week to produce a celebrity hunting show. Not only does Jeremy (more and more implausibly as the repetitions of the phrase pile up) not know what The Call is, but he’s clearly uncomfortable with the assignment when it’s delivered by Dana and Isaac. Before we get to the Big Speech, let’s dispense with the Stutter. It’s not that Sorkin thinks the repetition is funny on its own; he intends for it to be funny because everyone around Jeremy is using The Call as a piece of shorthand that everyone understands, and Jeremy is left whipping his head around in a vain search for someone to explain it to him. Nothing wrong with that gag in and of itself. The problem here is that the laugh track goes absolutely crazy during The Call dialogue, after barely registering in the last episode, and this is clearly bullshit intended to prod us in Pavlovian fashion to respond to this gag as if we were watching Redd Foxx stagger around clutching his chest. The people in charge of the laugh track are trying to make the Sorkin Stutter into a Sports Night signature, the kind of thing that merits whoops and applause from studio audience whenever performed. Here’s hoping this is the first and last time we viewers get goosed so unpleasantly, because my response is resentment times two: once at the laugh track’s blatant condescension, and again at Josh Malina’s hangdog impotence in the face of writing that doesn’t allow his character to make any stab at figuring out what The Call is. Seriously, if there’s a sadder transition than fading to commercial on Jeremy yelling out forlornly to an empty room “I still don’t know what that means!”, please don’t make me watch it.
Luckily a lot of the other stuff at which the laugh track wants to direct my chuckles is excellent. At this point in the series Josh Charles’ slightly distracted underplaying is emerging as a consistent highlight, something to look forward to every time that theme music plays. Here it’s the minor theme of his excitement about the America’s Cup (“We’re only a year and a half away!”) that leads to an all-time great bit of business about John Masefield’s poem “Sea-Fever,” whose most famous line is “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” but which Dan butchers as “the flung spume and the blown spray and, I don’t know, a thing in my eye.” At the same time as Sorkin is positioning Dan as the low-key member of the duo, he’s ratcheting up the Casey intensity through the latter’s jealousy of Gordon, the man with whom Dana spends time at the black-tie gala so dreadfully resented by our decidedly jeans-and-sneakers anchor duo. After getting Dan to admit that he can only think of two people named Gordon (Lightfoot and Liddy), Casey reasons with great gusto: “It’s my feeling that if those are the only two I’ve got and those are the only two you’ve got, those should be the only two there are… Then suddenly, a third one comes along!” (How quickly we forget Gordon from Sesame Street, guys. How quickly we forget.)
And now for the Big Speech. Or to be more precise, Big Speeches, although only one of them announces itself in capitals, and that’s significant. After Jeremy gets back from the ill-begotten hunting trip which ends with him collapsed in the hospital, he tells the whole story to Isaac and Dana in rapid yet seemingly practiced detail, without being interrupted (Big Speech clichés no. 1 and no. 2). He’s genuinely wounded, and convincing in explaining why he didn’t object to the assignment even though he has a moral problem with hunting, but Sorkin does him no favors by ending the Big Speech with the unavoidably whiny “It was just mean!”
And then comes the second big speech, the one without capitals. The one that rebukes the whole Jeremy monologue not only in substance but in tone and delivery, as if Robert Guillaume decided to give an impromptu lesson to his protégés both in front of and behind the camera. Where Malina is rushed, Guillaume is measured (even though he, too, has a lot of words to get out). Where Jeremy demands attention, Isaac commands it. Best of all, what he has to say isn’t the predictable “hunting is mean” message we’ve been expecting from Jeremy ever since we saw him wince during The Call meeting. Sorkin can startle you with real wisdom about relationships, especially those between leaders and followers, management and labor, advisers and advisees. Those messages hit hardest when it seems like the scene hasn’t been set up to deliver them—when the big speech turns out not to be about an issue on which the writer holds strong opinions, which we were just bracing ourselves to watch a mouthpiece deliver. “If you feel that strongly about something, you have a responsibility to try and change my mind,” Isaac insists. And then he tells us why that’s important not just for Jeremy’s health, but for his: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people, and if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
If only we could get to that beautiful Not-So-Big Speech, and its masterful performance, without having to cringe our way through the Big Speech that precedes it.
“Intellectual Property” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/13/98)
The strange case of “Happy Birthday To You” is as famous to entertainment nerds as the Wilhelm Scream. Movies and TV shows go to absurd lengths to avoid the ubiquitous nursery-school tune. Anyone with the acumen to notice this has probably been made aware that the song generates $2 million a year for the current copyright holders, and concludes that this money stems primarily from zealous pursuit by those holders of poor slobs who unknowingly infringe on their exclusivity by singing the song in a public venue. Despite the outstanding legal detective work of George Washington University’s Robert Brauneis, whose 2010 paper “Copyright And The World’s Most Famous Song” concludes that “Happy Birthday To You” most likely is not owed copyright protection for a variety of reasons, and for that matter does not count as a simplistic exemplar of copyright craziness in the way it’s generally portrayed, the urban legend of the song lives on. And that’s why it’s a teensy bit distracting that the B-story of this often outstanding episodes hinges on the premise that none of the television professionals in this office, with the sole exception of Mallory Moss (Yeardley Smith) in business affairs, has ever heard of the “Happy Birthday To You” broadcast prohibition.
Be that as it may, everyone’s amusement about the purported Mildred and Patty Hill composition (Isaac: “It took two people to write that song?!”) makes for an excellent running gag. Dan makes one of his signature pronouncements (a type of Sorkin comic situation I think we should call the Declaration of Principles) in response: “From now on I am only singing songs in the public domain.” (“That’ll show ’em,” Moss quips.) From then on, all Dan’s dialogue about birthday songs serves as a textbook on how to use specificity to great humorous effect, as he queries Dana: “I see you have a birthday coming up, and I was wondering how you feel about ‘O Dem Golden Slippers’,” and mutters to Casey: “‘Frère Jacques’ on your birthday next year. One chorus.”
As Dan sails through the episode safely above the fray, Casey is deeply mired in the A-story in several ways. He’s plagued by a fly during broadcasts (“Every time it buzzes my head on a fly-by, it’s like sound check at a Black Sabbath concert”), but no one else can see it. The fly may or may not be a psychological manifestation of his feelings about Dana going to Vermont with Gordon. Dana, while lying ever so fetchingly on a couch with her bare feet up in the air, twiddles a pencil while denying that her weekend in Vermont has anything to do with what she cannot stop Natalie from calling the “Casey situation” (“I’ve already named it,” Natalie deflects). It all leads up to the Big Fight, which takes place backstage right before Gordon arrives to take Dana away.
And as Big Fights go, this one lives up to its billing. A properly constructed Big Fight revolves around the participants’ passive-aggressive attempts to deflect their feelings about each other, slashes at old and poorly healed wounds, and, to everyone’s surprise, puts some truth out on the table. Dana demands an explanation for Casey’s mumbled “I’ll bet you will” at her cheery announcement that she’s going to have a good time (“If someone were to offer money against the possibility of you having a good time this weekend, I would take that action,” he restates), and they’re off. Casey denies caring anything about her, while Dana forcefully reminds him how many times he’s acted possessive towards her when he’s at one of her personal relationship low points. She says that she buys lamps whenever she’s upset about it, and Casey lunges for the last refuge of male participants in male-female Big Fights: imply that she’s crazy. “You must have one well-lit apartment, lady, because you turned a corner somewhere,” he mumbles, half to himself.
But assume for a moment that Dana is telling the truth when she says that Casey starts sabotaging her from the sidelines whenever he’s on the outs in his romantic life, going all the way back to college. That rings true; all of us have either done this, had it done to us, or watched our friends do it to each other. It’s a twisted version of the Fallback Relationship (the admirer on whose reliable, open-ended pining one comes to depend as an ego stroke) crossed with the If Only Relationship (the ex who stars in one’s fantasy scenarios about how life could have been different). If Dana is right, and Casey is getting all up in her business, raising hopes that he actually cares, when in reality he’s just at loose ends and looking for someone to blame his loneliness on—then it’s not fair. We may know that it’s a sitcom, and that these two have been tapped as the will-they/won’t-they, and that when Ted McGinley emerges from upstage all unaware to play his designated role as Innocent Third Wheel he’s doomed I tell you, doomed. But for a moment, because of the Big Fight, the situation gets more complicated than that, and Casey hears something tough that (again, if Dana is telling the truth) everyone who pulls this crap really ought to hear.
That’s the promise of the Big Speech and the Big Fight. That in the middle of the most clichéd of dramedic situations, the bond will kick in, maybe squeeze a little truth out. That we—characters, audience, all of us—might be surprised by something that gets said or heard. Damned if Sorkin doesn’t show us right off the bat that we’d better pay attention, especially when we’re most certain that we know how these things go.
Grades: “The Hungry And The Hunted”: C+; “Intellectual Property”: A-
- Casey gets one of the best zingers in the rather overwritten “Hungry And The Hunted,” referencing the pretentious “1998 A.D.” date on the black-tie gala invitation: “They’re worried I might accidentally show up 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.”
- Dan is working on an Apple PowerBook G3 in “The Hungry And The Hunted,” bringing back poignant memories of my beloved PowerBook Duo, sadly far more ubiquitous on television (it was Dave Nelson’s office computer until NewsRadio’s fifth season) than in real life, where I was the only person I knew who had one.
- We can’t go back to the late ’90s week after week without doing some fashion analysis. Last time I talked about Dan’s unfortunate sweatshirt in the Rosa Parks scene, with the ginormous chest and double-sized armscyes. This week he’s wearing a suit coat with lapels that come to an end far too high on his chest. Only Al Capone should be allowed to wear lapels like that. The less said about the pleated trousers Dana is wearing in The Call meeting, the better.
- “We took it evenly from Fox and Bristol,” says Isaac in the cold open to “Intellectual Property,” referring to the point uptick in the young male demographic. Are the references to ESPN as CSC’s competition going to be rare, given that, you know, CSC is supposed to be ESPN, mostly? With the monster trucks always coming up next after the big show?
- Peter Krause does some world-class, fake, fly-ducking cringing on the tape he shows Dan to prove that there actually is a fly.
- Reading-each-other’s-mind-type evidence that Dana and Casey are meant to be together, creepy dysfunctional past notwithstanding: “A fly is an insect!” “Well, what is it that isn’t an insect?” “A spider!” “Thank you!”
- There’s a gorgeous, minimalistic comic pause from Josh Charles when the control room asks him about Casey’s bedeviling fly, just before he says, “Let him work through it.”