"This show needs a ninth inning rally." -JeremyBecause I want to get this post done before my life gets insanely busy with fall premieres, Emmys, etc., this may be shorter than a three-episode review might deserve. But I'm okay with it, not only because I think we've all discovered in these reviews that "Sports Night" is a show best not over-analyzed, but because these are less three individual episodes than an multi-episode story arc that closed out that first season. The design isn't perfect - it's unintentionally amusing to watch the end of "Ten Wickets" (where Casey dramatically says he has to come up with a plan) immediately before the start of "Napoleon's Battle Plan" (where Dan is needling Casey for failing to come up with a plan) - but it's more or less one big story here.
Unsurprisingly, the focus is on the Dana/Casey/Sally/Gordon quadrangle(*). Somewhat surprisingly, I didn't object too much, despite my general antipathy towards this storyline. In fact, now that we're at the end of these season one reviews, and with me unlikely to revisit season two(**), I should admit that much (but not all) of my dislike for the Dana/Casey pairing came from what was done with them in season two. One of the unavoidable failings of this project is that I only had time to watch these episodes at roughly the rate I was writing about them, so some of my feelings were colored by 10-year-old memories rather than what was actually going to be in the episodes I hadn't gotten to re-watch yet.
(*) In one of my "Lost" reviews this year, I asked if there had ever been a genuinely interesting love quadrangle presented on series television. As several readers have pointed out throughout this series of reviews, "Sports Night" season one came awfully close.
(**) Why won't I be doing season two? Several reasons: 1)I only have time to do this sort of thing in the summer, when the pace of original programming is relatively slow (and, frankly, wasn't that slow this summer); 2)I learned this summer that trying to do three simultaneous rewinds (this, "Band of Brothers" and "The Wire" season 2) was at least one, if not two, too many in terms of maintaining my own sanity and schedule; 3)"The Wire" season 3 has one spot locked up for next summer, and if I do a second show, I'd like it to be something different to keep things fresh; and 4)While season two certainly had its good points, it was much more uneven than season one, and given the first two points, I don't want to spend too much time writing (nor do you want to spend too much time reading) reviews of a show where I'm more unhappy than not with the episodes.
With some exceptions (like virtually all of "Intellectual Property"), Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman were given some very good material in this season's part of the arc, either together (the flirting in "Smoky," Dana yelling at Casey in "Napoleon's Battle Plan"), or separately (Casey telling Gordon about his shirt in "Sally," or the brutal walk-and-non-talk that Dana leads Gordon on after he breaks off their engagement in the finale). When Casey tells Dana that she's funny at the end of the finale, not understanding why she's so happy to hear it, it's a terrific moment that feels earned for all we've seen the two go through over these 23 episodes. Whatever silliness comes later - and even whatever silliness may have happened earlier - doesn't matter in that moment, because the accumulated power of the storyline (and the sheer candlepower of Felicity Huffman's smile) renders the bad stuff temporarily meaningless.
Yet my favorite moment of those three episodes - and one I was kind of shocked to realize still choked me up, even though I knew it was coming - comes right before Casey's compliment, as Isaac makes a dramatic return to the show, and brings Robert Guillaume along with him.
Guillaume's stroke gave Aaron Sorkin no choice but to write Isaac out of the series temporarily and hope for the best. The intrusion of the real world onto one of his fictional worlds would cause Sorkin problems other times ("Isaac & Ishmael," anyone?), but here the circumstances worked out as well as anyone could have hoped, both in terms of Guillaume's health (he's still acting at least part-time today) and the way it played out on the show. What makes that entrance - with Isaac heard before he's seen as he bellows, "Hey, lady! Are you thinking about getting my show on the air anytime soon?" - so affecting, even 10 years after the fact, is that synthesis of the two. By now, we like and respect Isaac enough - and also understand how important his presence is to the other characters we've grown to like and respect - that we're glad to see him back, but it's also such a damn relief to see Guillaume on his feet (albeit with a cane), to hear him talk without the kind of dramatic speech issues that often accompany a stroke, and to realize that he's still funny.
Off-camera, this was a very trying debut season. Aaron Sorkin was still figuring out how (logistically and stylistically) to write for television. ABC had no idea what to do with the show, most notably with the studio audience/laugh track awkwardness. The ratings weren't great. Then Guillaume had a stroke.
But in the end, Sorkin, Tommy Schlamme and company pulled off their own ninth-inning rally. The first year came to a strong creative finish, Guillaume was able to come back to work, and there was a second season (though, again, it was much more uneven).
I remember being at ABC's upfront presentation in the spring of 1998. The "Sports Night" clip reel played to uncomfortable silence. Afterwards, I suggested to a couple of veteran critics that perhaps this was the type of show that didn't cut down well; they rolled their eyes and predicted this would be the first show canceled in the fall.
Never count out a team too early, fellas. You never know when a rally's coming.
Some other thoughts:
• While we're sort of on the subject of cricket (from "Ten Wickets"), I feel I should put in a plug for "Lagaan," which is a four-hour-plus Bollywood musical about the sport. I have watched this film at least three times, despite the fact that it is four hours, (mostly) in a language I don't speak, a musical (also in a foreign language) and about a sport I knew even less about than Jeremy and company when I went in (though I feel I have a vague command of it now, even if I couldn't tell you why throwing ten wickets is so impressive). So that either speaks to the movie's quality, or to my own pathological obsession with underdog sports movies.
• Beating up on what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of evangelical leaders for not condemning the actions of their most extreme followers is a favorite pasttime of Sorkin's. Casey rants at length about Jerry Falwell in "Ten Wickets," the "West Wing" pilot will climax with President Bartlet ripping into a fundamentalist leader under similar circumstances, and if "Studio 60" dealt with any subjects other than the tension between the liberal media and the Christian right, I've forgotten them.
• And speaking of recurring Sorkin devices, all three of his series to date ended their first season with an episode titled "What Kind of Day Has It Been?" I'll take "The West Wing" one over this, but Isaac's entrance makes it awfully close.
• Is there a more pointless and/or less funny running gag in this season than Jeremy's constant attempts to get people interested in his reasons for not donating blood? Maybe a payoff got cut for time, but as presented... why?
• It feels appropriate that the finale would feature a storyline involving Casey's son, who (while off-camera) was such an important part of the series pilot.
Well, that's it for me on this summer's round of DVD rewinds. Time to get back to screeners of fall premieres.
What did everybody else think?