Spoilers for "Thespis" coming up just as soon as I rehearse the route...
"Ladies and gentlemen, Thespis has left the building!" -DanaThere are deeper episodes of "Sports Night," and probaby even funnier ones (I laughed more at the running gag with the water glasses in "Dear Louise" than I did at anything here), but "Thespis" is probably my favorite episode of the series. Just pure fun, a supremely confident farce that still finds time for a few heavy moments without ruining the tone.
Sorkin's fond of this Murphy's Law structure (he did a similar storyline on the "Studio 60" episode with Allison Janney, which was one of the less-bad episodes of that series), and where I think he finds the alchemy here is the decision to so quickly set up the idea of Thespis and have everyone buy into it. I think if everyone were in denial about it for more than the few minutes it takes Dana to slip and fall, it might have felt labored, but because we and the character understand by now that Jeremy knows of which he speaks, we and they just go with it. Whether there really is a Greek ghost in the studio or not doesn't matter, because it's in everybody's heads. And once the premise is accepted, Sorkin and Schlamme can quickly accelerate the level of disaster, from Dana's slip, to the falling turkey, to the entire signal dropping out for several minutes(*).
(*) Time to call on the expertise of the commenters who say they worked on cable sports shows during this period: is that really plausible? What combination of factors would have to happen for a national cable sports network to just drop off the face of the earth in the middle of a show?
What also makes it work, I think, are those serious moments I mentioned earlier -- the idea that the bad luck afflicting Sports Night doesn't just involve defrosting turkeys, but could lead to a tragic event for Isaac's daughter. (That, I think, is the most significant difference between "Thespis" and the "Studio 60" episode, which was played entirely for laughs, when the genius of Sorkin is the mix of jokes and pathos.) That storyline, or Dan's lecture to Casey about his decision not to take the job that went to Conan O'Brien, don't get in the way of the laughs; if anything, they make the laughs bigger, because they're a respite from thoughts about what might be happening in that labor and delivery room 3000 miles away.
And once again, how great is Robert Guillaume? The scene where Isaac is refusing to let Dana comfort him was expertly set up with the earlier scene about his son-in-law not rehearsing the route. Because Isaac is, like most Sorkin characters, smarter than the average bear, we know that he's already thought of all of the myriad things that could go wrong for his daughter, and the way Guillaume plays that moment of mental torture is a reminder of the bliss that ignorance can provide.
But really, I just feel happy when Dana says the line I quoted at the top. As I've said before, what makes "Sports Night" cool is that it creates this vision of a fantasy workplace where everyone is like family to one another. And more than most episodes of the series, "Thespis" creates the illusion that we're part of the family, sucked into the wacky hijinks and possible darkness, so the feeling of relief when Thespis allegedly attacks Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford across town is palpable.
Some other thoughts on "Thespis" (and say that five times fast, why don't you?):
• We get a bit of background continuity, as the telecast mentions Jason Grissom's no contest plea; Grissom was the guy whose arrest was a hot topic in the pilot.
• Note how turned on Natalie gets when Jeremy is answering all the questions about the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities. She's kind of the ultimate geek fantasy: a pretty girl who's attracted to men for their command of trivia.
• Sorkin's repetitive dialogue can get irritating at times, but I always laugh at Casey's run of Alberto Salazar/New York Marathon guesses to Dan's question about the anniversary.
• "Sports Night" takes place in a parallel universe for a number of reasons, not least of which is the idea that Lorne Michaels, given the power to pick Letterman's replacement, would have thought to hire a sportscaster with no national profile. (Conan had no profile of any kind, of course, but he had worked on "SNL" for years.)
Coming up next: As I mentioned last week, the summer is about to derail any hope of keeping on a strict schedule. I'm taking my first real vacation in what seems like forever next week. Then late in the week after that, I'll be in California, first for Comic-Con, then for the Television Critics Association summer press tour. And I'll likely be taking some more days off in late August. (Between unused vacation days and mandatory furloughs, I'm required to take a lot of time off in the second half of this year.)
So we're going to have to play things by ear for the rest of the summer, with me doing the reviews whenever I'm able, and just posting them when they're done (as I did here). If it makes you feel better, this is how I did the "Freaks and Geeks" reviews two summers ago (several of which were written at press tour), so I imagine I'll still get a fair number done between now and Labor Day (or between now and Premiere Week of the new TV season, depending on how productive I am with these and how many other things wind up on my plate).
Short version: bear with me. They'll come when they come. But to make up for these disruptions, I'm going to try to double up the rest of the way, whether the episodes are thematically linked or not. So at the very least be up on "The Quality of Mercy at 29K" and "Shoe Money Tonight" before the next review goes up, whenever that is. Heck, thanks to the short/productive jury duty stint, I might (repeat: might) be able to do another before the end of this week.
What did everybody else think?