"I didn't know we could do that. Did you know we could do that?" -DanaUnlike some of the past episodes I've doubled up on, "29K" and "Shoe" don't have an awful lot in common, either thematically or in terms of continuing plotlines. The former is Aaron Sorkin, cockeyed optimist that he so often is, musing on how much human beings can accomplish with the right amount of imagination and hard work, the latter a comic romp in which jealousy rears its ugly head for both our actual couple (Jeremy/Natalie) and our inevitable couple (Dana/Casey).
"But mostly, I want you to trust me -- just once -- when I tell you that you have three sevens, and I have a straight." -Jeremy
The one clear thing they have in common (other than featuring the Sports Night staff stuck at the office to do a telecast in the middle of the night) is that they're each illustrative of one of Sorkin's recurring flaws: for "29K," his tendency to sometimes overargue a point; for "Shoe," his tendency to get a little patronizing when it comes to the opposite sex.
Now, these are both very good episodes, and they're maybe the first two where I feel my retroactive opinion is being significantly colored by my viewing of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Because I've seen how awkward those tendencies can feel on a Sorkin show that isn't working, I get uncomfortable noticing them even in the midst of a good Sorkin show.
"Shoe" is more problematic in this respect. Yes, Sorkin lays on the "Look at what we can do" stuff a little too thick in "29K," just to make sure we get the point, but it's still a sunny episode, and features one of my favorite Felicity Huffman performances in depicting Dana's over-the-moon reaction to seeing "The Lion King" on Broadway.
"Shoe," on the other hand, very much fits into the Sorkin pattern of creating female characters who are mostly very strong and great at their chosen professions, but who, from time to time, need the men in their lives to tell them what to do and explain how the world really works. This pattern was most evident in Harriet Hayes on "Studio 60," but even vintage Sorkin-era "West Wing" had stray moments like this.
Now, as to the Jeremy/Natalie poker confrontation at the end of this episode, it's hard to look at it without thinking of what commenter Hal Incandenza wrote in our discussion of "The Apology":
A friend of mine can't stand the Jeremy-Natalie dynamic (though, I believe, he likes both the characters) for the simple reason that Jeremy wins every single argument the two ever have. I re-watched the eps, and it's kind of true. See if that influences your viewing experience.Natalie is smart, and she's tough, and she's likable, but of course Jeremy knows what the cards are and she doesn't, and the only real trump she has over the guy is her sex appeal. In this relationship, Jeremy's smart and kind and thoughtful, and she... looks really hot in one of his white shirts. In my review of "Thespis," I wrote that Natalie is like every nerd's dream girl, and the way the card game only enhances that idea. What geek wouldn't want a hot woman who gets turned on by his command of trivia, and who also acknowledges that, in the end, she's clearly his intellectual inferior?
And the thing is, I think Sorkin could have told the exact same Jeremy/Natalie story and accomplished the same character arcs for both, even if he had flipped things at the end and shown that Jeremy's count of the cards wasn't as good as he thought. If Jeremy gives the speech about how Natalie needs to recognize that he's not some d-bag like every other guy she's dated, I think she still forgives him for the Judy-Rootie-Tootie thing even if it turns out that she had four 7's instead of three to beat his straight. I think it's a little more unexpected(*), and it makes Natalie seem stronger and more interesting for recognizing that Jeremy is right about the larger point even though he was mistaken on the specific point.
(*) Admittedly, it's more unexpected in hindsight, when we're aware of the pattern of this relationship, and of Sorkin's handling of female characters in general.
And I don't want to bag too much on Sorkin's feminist credentials given the conflict between Dana and West Coast Update producer Sally Sasser (played by Brenda Strong, who would get more work, I believe, if she wasn't taller than most of her insecure potential male co-stars). Yes, there's some amount of jealousy in how Dana reacts to Sally -- not about Sally's looks, but about how Casey drools over them -- but mostly, it's clear that what bothers Dana is that Sally is the kind of professional that Dana never wanted to be. Dana is beautiful, and she's feminine in a job where it would be very easy for her to play the tomboy, but she has never traded on her sexuality in the way that Sally does. She got to where she is because she's talented and driven, and it's those qualities that Casey is drawn to as much as he is to her appearance. And it's that, I think, that really bugs Dana about Sally: if Dana defines herself largely by how good she is at her job, and if Casey can leer over someone who isn't 1/10th as good at it as Dana, just because Sally has long legs and a big chest, does that mean Casey really doesn't care all that much about Dana the professional? And does that, in turn, mean that Dana herself has spent all these years mooning over the wrong guy?
Of course, in the end, Dana realizes that the way into Casey's heart is through his favorite camera angles and a lack of puns (it's an argument where she's right about everything and he's wrong) and everything works out in the end.
Some other thoughts on both episodes:
• At the time "29K" aired, the episode caught some grief from critics who thought Sorkin was being forced to plug another Disney product (or that he was choosing to do it to suck up to his new corporate overlords). He would later say that he just really enjoyed seeing "The Lion King" and wanted to try to convey that experience to the audience, and didn't even think about the synergy thing. As this was 10 years before product integration became the be-all, end-all of network TV, I'm inclined to believe him.
• West Coast Update is kind of a lame name for the 2 a.m. show, unless its full title was supposed to be Sports Night: West Coast Update. Also, the idea that Dan and Casey would be the only anchors available to fill in for the guys stuck in Pittsburgh doesn't track with later episodes, which will reveal a relatively deep bench at CSC.
• And speaking of that, without getting too spoiler-y for the newbies watching these episodes only as I write about them, Dan's on-air plea for food during "29K" seems like a big no-no, given the trouble a fill-in anchor named Steve Sarris will get into for a similar stunt in a season two episode. (Try to be vague if you want to compare the two situations, please.)
• In what circumstance is "The Weight" by The Band not the perfect song to end any episode of anything, as it does "29K"?
• "Shoe Money Tonight" was the first episode of the series not directed by Tommy Schlamme, and it shows, particularly in the climactic poker scene, where director Dennie Gordon eschews Schlamme's trademark fluid camerawork for a lot of quick cuts and extreme close-ups. Very jarring compared to the way the show usually looks.
Coming up next: Another two-parter of sorts with "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" and "Smoky," both of which feature Isaac going up against CSC chairman Luther Sachs.
Don't know when that will be written, given my Comic-Con/press tour commitments. I could slip it in at some point during those two weeks, or I may not get to it until mid-August. But I promise I've got at least a few more of these reviews in me before Labor Day.
What did everybody else think?