"You've got to stop thinking of me as the champion of all things black." -IsaacWhen a black actor reaches a certain age, and a certain stature within the entertainment industry, there can be the danger of what I consider The Morgan Freeman Problem, where they're expected to play dignified, wise characters who represent all that is good and decent in this world, and who are primarily there to help set the white characters straight.
"Natalie's my second-in-command, she's the only one I told." -Dana
"Jeremy's my boyfriend. He's the only one I told." -Natalie
"I told many, many people." -Jeremy
Robert Guillaume, like Freeman, has played plenty of those roles, and there are definitely times on "Sports Night" where Isaac veers dangerously close to that stereotype. On the surface, a lot of "Six Southern Gentlemen" is about the staff's expectation that Isaac will always be available to play that role for them.
But what makes "Six Southern Gentlemen," and the Isaac scenes in "Smokey," so interesting, is Isaac's own awareness of that role, and of the staff's expectation that he play it, and his own reluctance to do it because he's grown too comfortable -- and too old -- to risk losing his job so he can show the young'uns how to do the right thing. And that aspect of the storyline isn't diminished just because Isaac does, in the end, publicly shame Luther Sachs into saving Roland Shepard and his six teammates.
Now it would be nice to have a transition scene between Isaac dismissing Dan and Isaac telling Dana to clear some time in the show. I can see how Isaac might have wrestled with the decision after Dan left, but it would have been nice to see, even if it was just 15 seconds of Isaac at his desk, growing increasingly antsy. It feels like the "to hell with it" moment is missing, but Guillaume is a good enough actor to cover that gap.
And the thing that spares Guillaume from falling into the stereotype -- and that elevates the better-written Freeman roles in this category, like Red in "Shawshank" -- is that his writer understands that before Guillaume was respectable, he was simply funny. So even as Isaac is being noble and a martyr and all the rest, he still gets to ever-so-subtly make fun of Sally, or to banter with Dana about the concept of grooming. And because he's a person and not just an ideal, the moments when Isaac is heroic feel richer and more earned.
Casey gets the other story in both episodes, first learning a valuable Christmastime lesson about acknowledging your co-workers in "Six Southern Gentlemen," then practicing his flirting with Dana in "Smokey." The "Southern Gentlemen" subplot is fairly straightforward and sweet, so let's focus on "Smokey."
Though I have before and will in the future decry a lot of what Sorkin does with the Dana/Casey relationship, Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman had undeniable chemistry. What makes their "Smokey" story work is that it's really just an excuse to watch the two actors work together. There are no real stakes, no plot convolutions, just the two of them pretending to flirt, and then discovering that they're actually flirting. More of this, and less of some of what's coming (including in the next episode, "Small Town"), and I might think very differently about this whole storyline.
Some other thoughts:
• Janel Moloney, who played assistant wardrobe supervisor Monica, would of course go on to play Donnatella Moss on "West Wing."
• So bizarre to see Casey on old-school "The View," with Meredith, Debbie and a still-plus-sized Star -- and to watch it in the middle of a week where we had press tour sessions with Joy and then with Whoopi Goldberg.
• For the most part, I try to let the show slide on its level of verisimilitude, but when you have a subplot about characters debating the Play of the Year, shouldn't they be discussing, you know, plays? Almost everything that Jeremy, Kim and company were arguing about were potential Moments of the Year, but not individual plays.
• Much as I enjoy this show, I rarely it found it to be a laugh-out-loud, ha=ha kind of comedy, but the Dana/Natalie/Jeremy three-hander from "Smokey" that I quoted at the top may be the single funniest moment of the series. Perfectly set up by the first two lines, and delivered in perfect matter-of-fact fashion by Joshua Malina on the punchline. Had Jeremy not immediately fessed up, it's not remotely as funny.
• Sorkin's addiction to repeating a phrase simply for the sake of it would abate as his TV career went along, but it's still alive and well in "Smokey," where Dan and Casey repeat variations of "It's time" approximately 8,739 times in the episode's first five minutes.
• Speaking of Sorkin recurring devices, in "Smokey," Sally becomes the latest character to recite the details of her resume. Because she's Sally, and we're supposed to dislike her, her CV isn't nearly as impressive as Dana's.
Coming up next: "Small Town," in which Dana and Casey try to double date, while Natalie takes the wheel; and "Rebecca," in which Dan is intrigued by a CSC marketing analyst.
Don't count on seeing those for a bit, possibly not even next week (when I'm back from press tour), depending on how much catch-up I have to do.
What did everybody else think?