Okay, for this week and next week, we're back to one "Sports Night" review at a time, as I enjoyed both "Dear Louise" and "Thespis" too much -- and couldn't manufacture enough of a connection between the two -- to try to mash them together in a single review. Looking down the line, I suspect there will be more two-fers to come, but not at the moment.
Spoilers for "Dear Louise" coming up just as soon as some stamps materialize...
While the forced marriage of Aaron Sorkin to a live studio audience was a bad idea on ABC's part, "Dear Louise" is one of the few episodes where the laugh track doesn't feel out of place. That's because, for one week, at least, Sorkin, Tommy Schlamme and the entire cast seem to be making an effort to play to the audience in the studio at least as much as the viewers at home.
When I talked about how uncomfortably broad Joshua Malina's performance was during the Spike Lee scene in the pilot, several people pointed out that it's the only part of that episode that the studio audience responds to enthusiastically. It was aimed at them, and the rhythms of it were more familiar than most of Sorkin's repetitive, deadpan banter.
But it's jarring there because Malina's the only one in the cast who's playing to the cheap seats, where in "Dear Louise" everybody seems to be on the same page. Early in watching the episode, I would make notes about how Josh Charles was playing Dan's writer's block very big, or how Robert Guillaume was doing the same with Isaac's angst about his daughter's Republican boyfriend. After a while, though, it became clear that everyone was doing it -- that, in addition to being a series of mood-setting vignettes, "Dear Louise" was pitched at a different comic speed than most "Sports Night" episodes -- and it worked for me. And it clearly worked for the audience, since the laughter throughout the episode sounds heartier and more genuine than in nearly any other episode of the series. For one week, at least, the laugh track isn't an awkward intruder, but a willing collaborator.
And yet even in an episode that has Natalie throwing water in Dan's face not once, not twice, but thrice, and that climaxes with Dana drunkenly blasting "Boogie Shoes" through the newsroom, Sorkin and company find a way to make it still be "Sports Night." Even in the midst of the wacky hijinx, they slip in the A.K. Russell carjacking tragedy, and a sweet moment for Jeremy and Natalie, and even the way the gang assimilates the news that Louise is deaf and quickly moves on. It doesn't feel like pandering, even though there's more slapstick, and the performances are bigger than usual.
I really wish this was one of the episodes featuring a commentary track, because I'd love to hear the backstory. Was this Sorkin and Schlamme trying to make nice with the network? Were they ordered to do this? Or was it just something they tried, seeing as this was only Sorkin's seventh episode ever of writing for television, and he was learning as he went?
Whatever the reason, "Dear Louise" doesn't feel quite like the other episodes so far, but it works.
Some other thoughts:
• Sorkin will recycle both the letter-writing device and the writer's block gag on "The West Wing," the former in "The Stackhouse Filibuster" (which features three different characters e-mailing loved ones), the latter in "Enemies," where both Sam and Toby are afflicted. ("Somewhere in this building is our talent.")
• Was the third water splash improvised by Sabrina Lloyd? Or, at the very least, a surprise to Josh Charles and Peter Krause? Their reactions, particularly Krause's (see the photo), seem too genuine to be faked, even by good actors.
• Though Sorkin is often dinged for stacking the deck against conservative characters on his shows, I like that Isaac's fear and loathing about the Republican boyfriend is supposed to be completely ridiculous, as Dana tries to point out after Isaac lists the kid's impressive resume.
• For that matter, the letter-writing format allows Sorkin to drop in two more resumes, for both Dana and Isaac. I thought it was a nice touch that Isaac is said to have won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Gemini missions -- the unglamorous but essential intermediate step between the trailblazing Mercury missions and the climactic Apollo lunar missions -- as it not only shows that Isaac could make any subject sound exciting, but that he, like Sorkin, has a fondness for history's leftovers.
• Ted McGinley also often makes an easy punching bag -- he is, after all, the patron saint of Jump the Shark -- but he's very good as Gordon, and Sorkin makes an effort here to turn Gordon into a tough adversary for Casey when it would be very easy to make him this loathsome empty suit.
Coming up next: "Thespis," in which the studio comes under siege from a frozen turkey and a Greek ghost. This may be a day or so late, as I have jury duty early next week. And the week after that I'm probably on vacation, and the week after that I'm heading to California for Comic-Con and then press tour, and then there may be more vacation, and then... sigh... maybe I should've tried to find some way to combine this with "Thespis." I'll figure this out. That, or the summer 2010 lineup is already locked up (Wire season 3 and more of Sports Night).
What did everybody else think?