I had hoped to get more than one "Sports Night" review done during my time in California, but... I didn't. And with some vacation time coming up in a few weeks, in the interest of getting as far into the first season as possible, I called on my friend Linda Holmes (who runs NPR's Monkey See blog), a die-hard "Sports Night" fan, to do a pinch-hit review of "Small Town" and "Rebecca."
I do feel a bit guilty that Linda got stuck with two episodes that she's not crazy about (as she notes down below; we'd all be much happier if the request had come for the next two episodes, particularly "Sally"), but in fairness, she says mostly what I would have said about these two, and in fact is more kindly disposed towards the Dana/Casey stuff in "Small Town" than I would have been.
One editor's note: I gave Linda permission to discuss how the Bobbi Bernstein subplot in "Small Town" will play out a few episodes down the line, because there's really no way to discuss what happens here without factoring in how it paid off. So if you're one of those people coming to the series for the first time and aren't much ahead of these reviews, you may want to avert your eyes when you get to the paragraph that Linda will warn you about. (And the comments, too, for that matter.)
Anyway, spoilers for these two episodes coming up just as soon as I thank Linda for filling in...
This is the lowdown on me and Sports Night.
(1) In terms of sheer affection and rewatchability, it might be my favorite show ever, and I've watched a lot of television. (2) Before this, I also loved A Few Good Men and The American President. (3) After this, I hated Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip with a resentment roughly proportional to its having viciously beaten me in a bar fight, and the way I kept being told I was watching it wrong because I failed to understand its genius caused me to develop a condition, bordering on a nervous disorder, in which I prohibitively punched in the face anyone who asked me about it. I apologize if I ran into you during this time. I hope you have healed. (I have.)
And if you forced me to name one thing that drives me crazier than anything else about the way Sorkin writes (otherwise often brilliantly, in an addictively quotable style I draw upon at least weekly, to the moaning of my close associates who are tired of hearing me say "that's what makes it vicious – and a circle"), I would say, "He writes women in a way that makes him sound like he has issues with us." And I've said that a lot, and I apologize in advance for the degree to which I am... about to say it again, though it's in the context of lots of other stuff.
So, "Small Town"! "Small Town" has never been one of my favorite episodes, probably because it tells us so much that we already know: Natalie is good at her job, Dana and Casey are work-obsessed wackadoodles who can't manage their personal lives together or apart, and Dan is eternally baffled by women. He can't live with 'em, live without 'em, or convince 'em that he didn't sleep with 'em in European countries he is quite sure he never visited.
The story of the trade that is, or isn't, or is, makes an interesting data point in the discussion that took place after "Shoe Money Tonight," about the show's tendency to have Jeremy and Natalie fight and Jeremy always win. Certainly, in this episode, Natalie gets to be right, in that her scheme wherein she uses her connections with the Mata Hari of hotel housekeeping to confirm a story winds up being effective.
Two caveats: First, this is a dispute about work. Natalie is frequently right about work, just as Dana is. When there is an issue with work, Natalie is right a lot. To the degree I think there's a legitimate beef, it's parallel to what we talked about in the comments when Jeremy described Dana in "Dear Louise": the sense that when women are competent at work but turn out to be irrational nutbars, it is the cutest and most appealing thing ever, like nothing is as sexy as discovering bats in what appears to be an architectural masterpiece of a belfry.
>Second, there is an odd little dance that takes place at the end of the episode that steals some of the satisfaction of seeing Jeremy actually be wrong for once. Because in the end, Jeremy still gets to be right. It was Jeremy, after all, who said from the beginning that the trade would happen. So in the end, Natalie the dogged investigator merely proves that her own instincts were inferior to Jeremy's.
And in that last scene, after he apologizes for underestimating her professionally, she softens, pulls out five dollars and tucks it into his pocket to pay off their bet, which restores order and allows them to make up. It would mean nothing on its own, and perhaps it does mean nothing, but if you're already bugged by this dynamic in their relationship where he corrects her all the time, then the way she winds up happily reclaiming a "Hey, you still know more than I do, after all" position so that they can go back to normal is a little bit of an eye-roller.
As for Casey and Dana, "Small Town" is actually one of the episodes I like better for them, because it points out the ways in which they are legitimately alike, totally obsessed with their show to the point where they'd both rather be in the studio than out socializing.
All the "Holly Dixon Dance Company" repetition makes my head long for the peaceful respite of being beaten with a rubber mallet, but that's a relatively small complaint. It's a much better character and relationship moment than much of their pointless bickering. And I always love the scenes in which Isaac is wildly exasperated with hearing about everyone's personal lives, too, so I never get tired of Isaac saying, "I can't believe I've been standing here talking to you this long." Because you always knew that as much as he loved them, he meant it. He really, truly wanted everybody to shut up and buzz off in those moments, and Robert Guillaume never got them wrong.
The weirdest thing in "Small Town," of course, is the Bobbi Bernstein story. Now... there's just no way to talk about this without spoiling the future of Bobbi Bernstein. There's not. Fortunately, it's only a few episodes away. So skip the next paragraph if you don't want to hear about it.
Sorkin creates yet another woman who can be trusted in her job but then presents as insane on a personal level, of course, with Bobbi Bernstein. Poor Lisa Edelstein, who's a really good and really versatile actress, is saddled with a woman who appears at this point to be utterly delusional – and who I think was meant to be delusional here. The fact that in six episodes, a wildly implausible retcon – that it slipped Dan's mind that he'd been to Spain – will be used to rescue her doesn't make this any less silly. (How dumb is that, anyway? Dan is the sentimental one who remembers anniversaries, but he forgets what countries he's been to.) Furthermore, the way everyone assumes Dan is lying about not sleeping with her makes no sense either. Dan is... Dan. Dan is maybe the most stand-up guy on Earth. Why would all these people assume he's not telling the truth instead of assuming, as he does, that Bobbi Bernstein is an unbalanced kook who can barely be trusted not to chew on the wires in the studio?
Final "Small Town" thought: Is it realistic that Natalie would completely B.S. the guy about how she supposedly has two sources in his organization telling her about the trade? I'm really asking: even assuming her bluff is successful – as it is – is that in her long-term interests with somebody Sports Night has to deal with that regularly? Isn't he going to eventually maybe figure out she had no such sources, and then what happens to her credibility next time? And does Natalie actually have someone in housekeeping in any given major hotel in the country who can be counted on to be on duty at 11:30 at night (8:30 in Los Angeles, I guess) who will serve as a mole for her at her command? That seems... like a stretch.
Unfortunately, "Rebecca" introduces another annoying Sorkinese habit, which is his firm conviction that it's adorable when suitors ignore polite and firm requests to buzz off. He did this in Studio 60, when Jordan (Amanda Peet) firmly told Danny (Bradley Whitford) to get lost because his behavior was unprofessional and made her uncomfortable. Of course, what that secretly meant was, "Ignore what I'm telling you I want, focus on what YOU want, try harder, and get more aggressive. You might win me over! " Refusal to take no for an answer is not romantic, and it's aggravating when it's presented as such.
Aside from that, though, I do like Teri Polo as Rebecca (though not her hair), once she finally shows up, and I think her scenes with Dan are charming, here and in the future. (Can we discuss the agonizing amount of time it takes for Dan to successfully set up the elevator story with Casey to begin with, with the spreading it out in a nutshell or whatever? Seriously, just wake me up after that part.) The story of Rebecca is a very good one with regard to Dan's need for everyone to like him, and without spoiling anything, it pretty successfully sets up some of what he deals with in Season 2.
And finally, we begin to see, in "Rebecca," the fallout from Isaac's editorial in "Six Southern Gentlemen." The story about the Wall Street Journal quote interests me mostly because I'm such a fan of the way Robert Mailhouse played J.J. He's a bad guy, unquestionably, but in some sense, I always understood that he thought he was doing what his job demanded. Here, I think he didn't plant the quote to harm Isaac or to harm the show; he's just an utterly self-centered guy looking to beef up his own role as a middle manager by making it harder for Isaac and Luther Sachs to talk directly. It's the sort of vacant, amorally pragmatic thing that guys like that sometimes do, and if you've ever dealt with a guy like that, well…then you know.
I love the way this show had such long, lazy arcs with the network-show relationships, how they would deteriorate and then possibly improve, and then maybe not, and then maybe so. It's brilliantly written to capture how capricious an organization like that can seem to be in dealing with creative people. And with that, I will only say I regret that I missed my favorite episode of the series by only two episodes. Next up, if it's a pair: "Dana And The Deep Blue Sea" and (my favorite) "Sally."
Coming up next: As Linda says, we're gonna do "Dana And The Deep Blue Sea" and "Sally" in roughly a week's time.
What did everybody else think?