"It's your call, but pretty soon it's going to be my call. Because here's the thing: I can't let it be their call." -IsaacIt's a funny thing, how magic works sometimes.
I was watching the "Sports Night" pilot for the first time in a few years, dutifully taking notes in preparation for writing this post, and all I could seem to do was find things to pick apart: Aaron Sorkin hadn't yet figured out how to write dialogue that felt suited for TV rather than the stage. Joshua Malina was playing to the cheap seats. The studio audience (which I'll get back to at the end) was a colossal miscalculation. Etc., etc., etc. I remembered that I hadn't loved the series pilot in the first place, and understood that the show would get (much) better over time, but there was a part of me that was starting to wonder if maybe I should have watched a couple of episodes before committing to a summer of this show...
...and then Dan and Casey rushed in to watch Ntozake Nelson go for the world record, and the look on Peter Krause's face made me remember exactly why I loved this show in the first place, and why I wanted to re-visit it all these years later.
Yes, it's a sappy moment, but you have to be a sap on some level to enjoy Sorkin, just as you had to be to enjoy Sorkin's spiritual ancestor, Frank Capra. And if you have a weakness for a well-executed emotional touchstone scene, then this show -- and scenes like the climax of this pilot -- will make you fall for it, hard.
A lot of what sells the scene is Krause's expression, both as he watches and then as he calls his son, but much of it comes from how Sorkin laid pipe for it throughout the episode. 22 minutes and change is not a lot of time to tell the kind of stories Sorkin likes to -- while I don't think the show's subject matter lent itself to an hour-long format, I think 30 minutes or so with no commercials would have been just about perfect -- but over the course of those 22 minutes, Sorkin manages to introduce all the characters and how they relate to each other, establish that Casey's having a personal and professional crisis, set up the tension with network management, create a battle over the Ntozake Nelson feature, and even work in Casey's rant about the evils of modern sports. Not all of it comes through cleanly -- that last scene is fairly clunky, particularly Casey's line about "a double homicide in Brentwood" -- but it all comes together very nicely in that moment, and is a promise of greater things to come.
It's easy to dismiss "Sports Night" as some kind of training ground for "The West Wing" -- the place where Sorkin learned how far he could take the repetitive rhythms of his dialogue on TV, where Tommy Schlamme mastered the gliding camerawork that would become his signature -- but that's unfair to this show. No, the stakes aren't as high at a third-place cable sports operation as they were in the White House, and there's no Earth-shaking drama like the President of the United States cursing out God in the middle of National Cathedral. But the performances are wonderful, and Sorkin manages to find the thrilling moments -- and the silly ones -- in our love of sports, and more universally in the way people can fall in love with their jobs under the perfect circumstances.
I'm really looking forward to watching more episodes and discussing them with you.
A few other thoughts:
• So, the laugh track -- or, rather, the studio audience. I think it's important to make the distinction that this was live, albeit very confused, laughter from people sitting in the bleachers watching a taping, as opposed to canned laughter mixed in during post-production. ABC was nervous about doing "Sports Night" without laughter of some kind -- this was 1998, a year and a half before "Malcolm in the Middle" became a big hit and made network executives less afraid of going without the laugh track -- and insisted on the audience. The problem was that Sorkin didn't write in the traditional set-up/punch-line language of the kind of show that traditionally has a laugh track, and the audience had no flipping idea how to respond. You can hear the first tentative chuckles during Dan and Casey's debate about cognac, and then slightly more assertive laughs during the discussion of the kicker who can't kick, but the infrequency of the laughter becomes much more of a distraction than having no laughter at all. Sorkin and Schlamme fought for a while, and eventually got rid of the studio audience by arguing that they needed the studio space taken up by the bleachers to build a few more sets. There was some kind of canned laughter, albeit more muted, for a while after that, before the show was finally free of its tyranny once and for all in season two. While a part of me wishes that the DVDs didn't contain the laughs at all, the purist in me says we should be seeing them the same way people had to watch 'em on ABC back in the day.
• I had forgotten that the opening (and often closing) shot of most episodes was of the World Trade Center. Were the CSC offices supposed to be in the towers, or just somewhere far downtown?
• Interesting that so much of the conflict in the pilot comes from the network pressuring Dan to abandon Casey and move on with a new co-host, when the second season makes it clear that Casey has always been the star, and Dan, for all his talent, is viewed as the guy riding coattails. I'm not saying the two points of view are in conflict -- if Casey had really been this angry for a long time, I don't think it would matter how bright his star used to be -- but it definitely raised my eyebrow when I revisited the episode.
• So, who does Malina sound more like in the Spike Lee scene: Woody Allen or Wallace Shawn? Or a yet-to-be-named third option? Malina would find the right level quickly, but he's really broad here.
• Sorkin really loves to have his characters rattle off their resumes, doesn't he?
• Back when the show was running, I'd get a letter or e-mail a few times a month from a "Sports Night" viewer confused by what Dan Rydell means when he says "those stories and more." ("What stories is he talking about?") The idea, of course, is that we're only seeing what's said in the studio, not what the fictional CSC viewer at home sees, and Dan is referring to the clips being shown in the opening credits for the show-within-the-show, just like the "SportsCenter" anchors did then, and still do now.
Coming up next Wednesday: "The Apology," still considered many fans' favorite episode.
What did everybody else think?