Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sports Night rewind: "Dear Louise"

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?

41 comments:

Silence Dogood said...

I've always wondered if that third water in the face was ad-libbed. Then again, what better example of playing big can you have than Krause's reaction?

If you manage to get through Sports Night, how about the first couple of seasons of The West Wing for the rewind? That one line from Josh and Toby's writer block episode made me laugh out loud.

TC said...

I definitely thought the third water splash was ad-libbed. That stood out very clearly to me on the rewatching.

I don't think I was a huge fan of the letter as the storytelling device, but it didn't really take away from my enjoyment of the episode.

Thanks for doing these, Alan. This rewind finally got me to pick up the DVDs of one of my favorite shows all-time.

Brandy said...

If not ad-libbed timed off or done differently than planned to get a more genuine reaction.

Dear Louise is my favorite of the letter writing eps if only because Jeremy and I have similar attitudes on stamps... and well then Stackhouse because I love Stackhouse.

I make a pretty good living, Danny. I can afford to wear what I want and pay full price.

The dog is gay?

Thespis next week! Thespis is my favorite silly episode. So looking forward to it.

filmcricket said...

The question about the possible ad-lib has been asked many times. It's always asserted that Sorkin basically doesn't permit ad-libbing on his shows, but I agree, the thing feels far too genuine to be anything else.

"Dear Louise" isn't one of my favourite episodes, but man, do I love the final few minutes of the staff boogeying drunkenly (after having been gone for an hour, max - great drinkers, or greatest drinkers?). I've often wondered if the S2 episode of Desperate Housewives where Lynette dances on a bar to "Boogie Shoes" is an homage to this episode.

Speaking of drinking, is Isaac an alcoholic, or did the script forget that it's, like, noon when he pours the Scotch and discusses his plan to build a moat?

Susan said...

I just watched this episode again in anticipation of your rewind, Alan, and I also was thinking that the third water in the face was a surprise to Josh Charles and Peter Krause. The reactions are just so genuine - Charles looks like he's genuinely amused, and Krause looks as if he's looking off camera at someone.

This is a fun episode, and I really loved seeing the gang through Jeremy's eyes. I love the repeated joke about the blue drinks, and I just love Natalie and Jeremy's surprise kiss at the end - especially the little moment where she hands him the stamps and then drags him off to dance.

I also love the way they once again show the workplace as family, when Dana makes it very clear that there's room for the A.K. Russell story up front because it means so much to Isaac.

Susan said...

By the way, I've always wondered about the schedule in the Sports Night workplace. The first rundown meeting is at 10 am and their show starts at 11 pm, so they all work 14 hour days, every day? And Dana always seems to be going off to dinner with Gordon after work - even in Manhattan, midnight seems really late to grab dinner, but maybe that's just me. I can see how a bar would be open, like in this episode, but restaurants?

Obviously I have way too much time on my hands to be thinking about this.

Sam Sevr said...

"You need to get someone to fix my computer."
"Why? What's wrong with it?"
"It's in several pieces on the floor."


This is probably my favorite episode. And that may be because I live out in the cheap seats, but still I always laugh a lot at "Dear Louise". Whenever I need a Sports Night fix, it's usually "Dear Louise". And then of course I have to stick around for "Thespis".

2 quick points. The "bulging disk" typo is straight from the files of SportsCenter - except they didn't catch it beforehand.

And for the nitpickers, which I'm usually not, when I watched "Mary Pat Shelby" I was listening specifically for one thing that relates to this episode. When Jeremy is talking to Natalie after she returns from Giants Stadium, he says his sister gave him an indian burn that looked like Natalie's and he should call his sister and ask why she did it... Well yes he did say his sister Louise. But now Louise can't hear. So what terrible tragedy has befallen Louise that she's now deaf? oh well.


"I was just thinking about all the forensic evidence. The ballistics match. The hours of wire-tapping, a portion of which included the defendant saying 'I killed him. I killed him. I killed him dead.' And I was just wondering what's a fellow got to do to get thrown in jail on your watch?"


Did I mention I love this episode??

Grunt said...

When Jeremy is talking to Natalie after she returns from Giants Stadium, he says his sister gave him an indian burn that looked like Natalie's and he should call his sister and ask why she did it... Well yes he did say his sister Louise. But now Louise can't hear. So what terrible tragedy has befallen Louise that she's now deaf?

Probably she has a TTD machine so that he can call an operator and she can get the conversation in teletype form (made all but obsolite in the age of instant messaging).

I adore this episode for a variety of reasons, none the least of which is that I am an avid letter writer with friends in Italy, New Zealand and Hungary. There is something magical about putting pen to paper that the internet has all but killed (the Internet has replaced it with other things, and I love the Internet...I'm just saying). I love episodes of shows where you have an excuse to find out what is inside the head of another character in a genuine way and this episode succeeds in doing just that.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Sorkin has admitted that it was a continuity flub he hoped people wouldn't notice. He very often doesn't think things through (see also President Bartlet's secret MS, which was born out of a desire to show Martin Sheen watching daytime soaps), and so he put in a throwaway line about calling Jeremy's sister on the phone before he decided she would be deaf.

David J. Loehr said...

For me, Felicity Huffman dancing to "Boogie Shoes" is right there with Donald Faison's "Poison" dance. But then, I always did have a mild crush on Dana.

And the "bulging disk" was in "The Big Show," Olbermann and Patrick's book about SportsCenter, which Sorkin clearly devoured. (It served as a source for my own late, lamented SportsNight spec script.)

Zac F. said...

I've always thought that the third water toss was ad-libbed. It's Peter Krause's reaction that makes me think that. If not, he's one damn good actor there.

When the gang comes back from the bar and start dancing, watch Chris, Will and Dave dancing in the background while Jeremy and Natalie are talking. They're such goofy dancers.

I just love Casey walking up to the copier and trying to be inconspicuous about taking the copy of Dan's date's private parts. :)



I know this is off topic, but I could have sworn President Bartlet is watching a Jerry Springer-esque show in the M.S. reveal episode.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's always asserted that Sorkin basically doesn't permit ad-libbing on his shows, but I agree, the thing feels far too genuine to be anything else.

Well, there's the other possibility I raised, which is that it wasn't ad-libbed, but it also wasn't in the script because Sorkin and/or Schlamme wanted Krause and Charles to react genuinely.

Eyeball Wit said...

Don't know what the SN schedule was, but it strikes me as being one of the first episodes to be written after the first one had aired. And the feedback was likely "You've got to slow down and explain this stuff." (There was a here- are-the-characters opening montage about seven episodes into the West Wing which seemed to serve a similar purpose.)

The third splash sure seemed like an ad-lib. It was also the only time I ever laughed out loud on a Sorkin show.

Wasn't Matthew Perry's writer's block a big part of a couple eps of Studio 60?

That one line from Josh and Toby's writer block episode made me laugh out loud.

Which specific episode, and what line?

Remember that Josh Malina was the "fresh arm" who came in to help Toby on the second inaugural (?) and remind him that he was "one of those guys." (Funny how Bartlet had two of "those guys," in Sam and Toby, but Santos had this 22-year old who could barely put a sentence together.)

Eyeball Wit said...

He very often doesn't think things through (see also President Bartlet's secret MS, which was born out of a desire to show Martin Sheen watching daytime soaps)

Wow. I had never actually heard that. So Sorkin gave Bartlet MS as a minor plot point in a West Wing scene that never got written?
This is your brain on drugs, I guess.
FWIW, was Sorkin on drugs when he wrote Sports Night? (It would explain a lot of the Casey-Dana stuff.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

Eyeball Wit, the scene got written and aired. Sorkin said he had an image in his head of Bartlet laid up in bed watching daytime TV, but he couldn't justify it if the guy just had a cold or the flu -- Bartlet was too much of a workaholic to take the day off for that -- and needed to cook up an ailment serious enough to make it work.

It wasn't until after the airing of that episode (I believe it was "He Shall, From Time to Time...") that it occurred to Sorkin that the president having secret MS would be kind of a big deal.

M.A.Peel said...

"I don't have the hiccups."

I love that line. This episode for me is where the Sorkin walk really found its form (I was going to say "first hit its stride," but thought better of it.)

I second a WW rerun.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't until after the airing of that episode (I believe it was "He Shall, From Time to Time...") that it occurred to Sorkin that the president having secret MS would be kind of a big deal.

That seems odd, if only because he treats the topic very heavily in the episode itself. It's sort of a major thing when he tells Leo about it, and the characters recognize the gravity of it. Remember, its the first and I believe only time Leo calls him "Jed" in the show, he's so distraught at the revelation. Sorking sure seemed to know it was a big deal. Maybe he didn't know exactly how it would end up, with Oliver Babish and "Brothers in arms", but he must have had some idea.

-DamnYankees

Teebore said...

Wasn't Matthew Perry's writer's block a big part of a couple eps of Studio 60?

It was indeed, making it one of Sorkin's trifecta themes that was featured in all three of his shows.

The pressure to write, in general, was a theme that hung over most every episode of Studio 60 in the form of the countdown clock on Matthew Perry's office wall.

Eyeball Wit said...

Thanks Alan,
I do kind of remember it now, Bartlet's rantings about the fact that the people who were watching this stuff were the same people who elected him. (Or maybe that was some other random rant.)
FWIW, I've seen every episode of West Wing at least five times, and I just plain didn't remember the daytime TV bit.
I'll say it again. It's just shocking that Sorkin would drop in a bomb, that would literally affect every episode of the show, so casually.
I dunno, a blown disc in his back, could have worked, too.
It's a decision that mirrors all of Sorkin's work: audacious, maddening, and a little self-destructive.

Here's some stuff from a West Wing episode guide, shedding some light on that one.

http://www.westwingepguide.com/S1/Episodes/12_HSFTTT.html

Eldritch said...

The third splash sure seemed like an ad-lib.

Certainly a surprise. And it's not just Kraus' reaction. Notice the big laughs from background players, such as the cameraman. Big laughs. Eyes sparkling. Looks like a genuine surprise to everyone on set.

It really comes across as a surprise, but maybe not an adlib. Someone set it up. Natalie reaches down off-screen to pick up the glass of water. Someone had to place that water there in advance.

Nicole said...

The one thing I couldn't figure out was why Jeremy was not handwriting his letter. If the entire point of the exercise is that he is not sending his sister an email, why not use pen and paper as opposed to typing it in a word processing program and then printing it? If one is going to be anti technology, why not eschew the computer altogether.

Except for that, I did enjoy the episode.

Norm N. Conquest said...

Susan, there must be 300 restaurants in Midtown where you can get a three-course sit-down dinner after 2 a.m., not counting the 3,000 all-night diners, hardworking ethnic joints that turn the keys over to granddad or grandsons while mom and dad get to bed, or the 6,000 fast food chains.

Some keep the kitchen open to keep the bar busy from 2 to 4. For some, the after-theater and postgame crowds are the start of their night. Some serve 500 delivery meals a night to bankers and traders running on London hours and keep the front room open for show.

When you have millionaires working sec ond and third shifts, there's money to be made in feeding them.

Anna said...

Yes, Aaron Sorkin repeated the letter-writing device in The West Wing, but first he lifted it from M*A*S*H, which I think is pretty cute as an homage.

Hannah Lee said...

This is one of my favorite episodes. Alan, interesting take on the tone/style of this episode compared to the previous ones. I had never picked up on that before.

Though, despite everyone playing big, Dan's meltdown stays pretty contained. I guess it's just another way Sorkin gives us an idealized workplace. I don't imagine that any real-life national sports anchor would be so un-diva-ish in the same situation. Natalie throws water in Dan's face 3 times, plus gets him with a foghorn and he never even raises his voice to her. He reacts by speaking emphatically, not angrily:

"Why did that just happen?"
"I don't have the hiccups."

The only time we really see him lose it is when Casey accidently makes Dan think something's happened to his mother (plus the offscreen meltdown that ends badly for his computer). Though Sports Night characters often behave stupidly or go off on a rant, now that I think about it, I don't think we're ever shown someone really losing their temper (beyond fights like Dana and Casey's in Intellectual Property) I wonder if that was a conscious decision to keep the characters appealing.

Though most of this episode has Casey trying to help Dan get a grip, the "Come out with me tonight" banter that starts the episode echos back to the pilot again, with Dan trying get a pissy Casey to cheer up and have some fun. I love their little Boogie Shoes walk-and-talk, where they seamlessly start singing and dancing while walking and talking. And that that scene rolls into them extending an invitation to Jeremy to join in the after hours fun. And that it leads into the whole, silly "smoking dog" discussion.

The last scene is fun, though Filmcricket's right: this must be the most lightweight and/or heavy drinking group of NYC 20-30 somethings ever, to be so drunk after just an hour. This episode closes out with another random music bit that ties the episode together nicely (like the pilot). Everyone returns to their home away from home, tipsy and ready to let their hair down. The physicality of the scene really works for me. Casey dancing and ranting while holding that ridiculous blue drink, until Dana sex-kitten's it up and gets him to smile, Dan doing the robot (or whatever that was), Dana dancing on the furniture, Chris and Kim dancing up a storm obviously enjoying them selves, etc. etc.

jcpbmg said...

this is also my favorite of the letter writing episodes (although I always love the "Donna says "hi," Mom" line from Stackhouse Filibuster)

To me this episodes seems to go nicely with Hungry and Hunted as Jeremy goes from sitting there alone in the empty office to hanging out and dancing with everyone

(also every time I see a blue drink I'm instantly reminded of this episode)

Linda said...

"Dear Louise" is so very, very good. I love this episode.

My only tiny beef is that this is the episode where Jeremy explains how good Dana is at her job and then says the thing about how she's something like "an irresistible combination of brilliance inside the office and something less than brilliance outside" or something.

That line drives me absolutely INSANE, every time I hear it. It always gives me the sense that a powerful boss who happens to be a woman has to be softened up with the notion that she's an idiot in her personal life, which is what makes her so gosh-darn cute. In fairness, Casey and Dan also screw up their personal lives, but I don't think you'd ever hear anyone say that their idiocy outside the office is what makes them irresistible. I hate, hate, HATE that line. Dana and Natalie are relatively well-written characters, and I really like their relationship as friends. But eeeevery time I hear that line about how adorable Dana is because sure, she's the boss at work, but get her outside the office and she's a total incompetent? I cringe fiercely on the inside. Perhaps it is my memories of "Cheers," where Rebecca was introduced as a highly competent, no-bull manager and gradually became barely smart enough to dress herself.

It's a nitpick, but it sticks out every time for me.

graciela said...

The first seven episodes could be called "The Education of Jeremy Goodwin":

Episode 1: He gets hired
Episode 2: He gets a lesson in editing a highlight tape
Episode 3: He gets the call and a talking-to from Isaac
Episode 4: He gets drawn into trying to make sense of Casey's tortured relationship with Dana
(something he's going to need if he sticks around)
Episode 5: He threatens to have someone killed
Episode 6: He's seen as quixotic; he finds the perfect place to take Natalie to dinner
Episode 7: He writes the perfect essay on "what I've learned at my new job."

I think that every new series should do a show like this along about the 7th episode, just to help latecomers get their bearings and to deepen the loyal fans' understanding of the characters.

Isaac Lin said...

I appreciated how the letter narration allowed some exposition to occur, speeding up character development. For me it is much more effective than the trick David E. Kelley uses in every show: throw all the characters in one room and get them all squabbling with each other to reveal their personalities. I know this was credited for getting Chicago Hope off the ground, but it always comes across to me as a cheap ploy to suddenly have characters act in radically different ways, completely inconsistent with their previously established natures.

Anonymous said...

On the question of whether the water was ad-libbed, I recall reading an interview with Sabrina Lloyd where she was asked the question and asserted that it wasn't. She said the reactions were just good acting.

Silence Dogood said...

That one line from Josh and Toby's writer block episode made me laugh out loud.

Which specific episode, and what line?


The line Alan quotes: "Somewhere in this building is our talent." It's preceded by this: "We're having difficulty locating our talent. ... It couldn't have gone far, right?"

It's from Enemies, Season 1, Episode 8. I love the first two seasons of "The West Wing," but it really slipped once Sorkin quit the drugs.

filmcricket said...

@ Linda: that line bugs me too. Leaving aside what it means for a moment, it just sounds ridiculous - it sounds like a character description on a network website or a précis for a show pitch, not like something a real person would ever say in a letter.

And yeah, Dana's just another in a long list of TV women who fall completely to pieces in their personal lives (and Rebbeca Howe is a great example - there's a lot of stuff about Cheers, seen from this distance, that's really unpalatable). That's one of the reasons I love Dana so much in the pilot; she's so tough-as-nails.

Rinaldo said...

If the entire point of the exercise is that he is not sending his sister an email, why not use pen and paper as opposed to typing it in a word processing program and then printing it? If one is going to be anti technology, why not eschew the computer altogether.

I guess I don't understand this objection. I can easily imagine wanting to send some an actual letter through the mail (I still do that on occasion, though less and less often). But I might not want to subject them to my handwriting, or I might find typing easier on my wrist, or I might enjoy the delete/revise capabilities of word processing... I see any number of legitimate reasons. Even pre-email, I think I stopped handwriting letters once I acquired a typewriter.

I share Linda's revulsion toward that one line. Fortunately, it's just one line in the series. (We see her sometimes acting screwed-up after that, like most of the characters, but aren't bludgeoned with the idea that it's "part of her charm.")

Theresa said...

My only tiny beef is that this is the episode where Jeremy explains how good Dana is at her job and then says the thing about how she's something like "an irresistible combination of brilliance inside the office and something less than brilliance outside" or something.

Yes, and the implication that goes along with it that she's good at her job because she was raised with her brothers, and a mess at her personal life because she went to a girls' school. Makes me cringe, too.

Nicole said...

I had tried to block that line out of my mind, but it did irritate when I first heard it. It's an easy trope to have the "careerwoman" be great at her job and crappy with her personal life. What grates is that Dana isn't actually that bad (at least not yet, I would argue season two she does become dumb). Casey is the one with the divorce, but no comment is made about his failures. I can't pin the blame entirely on Sorkin because he is not the first male writer to go that route. However, it is lazy, and tiresome to have the "aggressive" woman once again be disparaged because she does not have a husband and 2.5 kids waiting for her at home.

Linda said...

Well, I try hard with those things to think all the way through whether they're really sexist -- like I said, in this case, Casey and Dan are also strong career people who tend to fumble their personal lives (and so were most of the dudes on TWW), so that, in and of itself, doesn't bother me so much.

But there's a certain way -- that I think is reminiscent of what was sometimes also true of C.J. -- in which the image of Dana is oddly patronizing, in spite of being affectionate. She never became as nitwitty as Rebecca did, certainly. But in that one line, there is definitely a regrettable sense that nothing is more attractive than seeing a seemingly powerful woman revealed as, in secret, just a needy girl.

I try not to be too hard on Sorkin about this particular character -- I like Dana in many ways, and she definitely commands respect at work and things like that. But oof, that line.

Hannah Lee said...

I recall reading an interview with Sabrina Lloyd where she was asked the question and asserted that it wasn't. She said the reactions were just good acting.

Wow, good to know. That was good acting.

Mike said...

mash them together

Very clever, considering where the "episode based on a character writing a letter to a family member" was perfected.

The "Natalie harasses Dan" subplot was brilliant. Sports Night didn't do much slapstick, but when they did it was wonderful.

Karl said...

The nice thing about the Internet is that it's easy to find Sabrina Lloyd talking about that glass of water.

ZeppJets said...

Just noticed that Issac says AK Russell was often overlooked because he was a teammate of Jackie (Robinson) and (presumably Bob) Gibson. I'm pretty certain they meant Robinson and Satchel Paige, who played on the KC Monarchs during the 1940's. Bob Gibson was too young to have played in the Negro Leagues.

Alan Sepinwall said...

ZeppJets, I assumed the Gibson in question was Josh. Did he and Jackie ever play together?

ZeppJets said...

Touche Alan! But I can't find anything that puts Josh Gibson on a team with Robinson. The episode specifically cites the Monarchs too.