Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sports Night rewind, episode 2: "The Apology"

Okay, let's continue with our look back at the early episodes of "Sports Night." Spoilers for episode two, "The Apology," coming up just as soon as I jinx a no-hitter...
"That was 11 years ago tonight, and I just wanted to say I'm sorry, Sam. You deserved better in my hands. And I apologize. That's all." -Dan
Whenever I think back on "Sports Night," Dan's apology to his brother is almost always the first scene that comes to mind. It's such a terrific synthesis of all the things the show did well:

• It doesn't go where you expect it to. After the earlier scene with the suits from Continental Corp., you assume it's going to be a preachy monologue about the damage being done by the War on Drugs, but instead Dan tells the story of his brother Sam and reminds us that the political and the personal can have a complicated relationship.

• It's a nice piece of writing from Aaron Sorkin, and an even better piece of acting by Josh Charles. Because Sam's story is coming to us with no introduction, it could feel like a shameless tug at our heartstrings, but it doesn't. It amplifies and alters how we viewed Dan in the earlier scenes, and Charles plays the hell out of it. Sorkin can over-write at times, but this is nice and spare.

• It ties in perfectly with the comic relief subplot about Casey's fear of not being cool. The subplot on its own still feels a little flimsy, like Sorkin was trying to do a more traditional comedy bit to please the network, but when Casey slides his chair over to Dan and starts talking about The Starland Vocal Band -- effectively telling him, "I'm here for you, man, but I know you didn't want to talk about that, so have a laugh at my expense instead" -- it's a thing of beauty. (And it's made that much funnier/sweeter because they went to the trouble of getting the rights to play "Afternoon Delight" under the scene.)

In addition to giving Dan a spotlight after the pilot's Casey-centric-ness, "The Apology" is also a very good Isaac episode. As with Leo on "The West Wing," Isaac's role here is to be the grown-up in a world of overgrown children, and Robert Guillaume, as you would expect, does a terrific job at playing both the comic and serious side of that role. It's funny when Isaac has no patience for Casey's existential dilemma about being cool, and his presence in the meeting with the network lawyers lends gravity to Dan's side of things. (And the best moment of all is after the suits leave and Isaac deservedly gives Dan grief for his most pretentious comment, telling him, "And because I love you, I can say this: No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks.") I grew up on Guillaume in "Benson," but it wasn't until "Sports Night" that I had a real appreciation for the man's range and depth.

Some other thoughts on "The Apology":

• On the negative side, this episode introduces the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Dana and Casey, and while the actors have good chemistry and the storyline occasionally yielded good moments (notably "You're wearing my shirt"), for the most part it featured the two of them acting like idiots, and I cringe during most of those scenes. (The Dana/Casey stuff from next week's "The Hungry and the Hunted" is all but unwatchable.)

• The Jeremy/Natalie relationship, on the other hand, is often very funny, and here leads into more Casey comedy goodness as he lets Natalie talk him into helping Jeremy edit down his first, monstrously-long highlight package.

• Unless I missed one in the pilot, this episode gives us our first mention of Luther Sachs, the mysterious owner of Continental Corp. (and, therefore, CSC). Many bad things will be done (or attempted) in Sachs's name over the course of the series.

• I had forgotten how much I liked Kayla Blake as Kim. Wish she worked more after the series ended.

• Sorkin has a unique authorial voice, and he often struggles when trying to write as anyone else. The alleged Howard Stern joke -- "Dan Rydell lends a whole new meaning to the word 'highlight.'" -- doesn't sound remotely like something Stern would say.

Coming up next Wednesday: "The Hungry and the Hunted," in which Jeremy gets The Call, Dana wears a swank dress, and Dan professes his ignorance of soccer.

What did everybody else think?


Fernando said...

This is the first of your summer reviews that I'm reading at the pace of the review and it's killing me! I wanna just watch the next episode already.

As soon as Dan said the Rosa Parks line, I couldn't wait for that other show to drop.

Casey's reaction to the apology is priceless. The sort of thing we all wish we could pull off, I personally try and increasing fail.

Mapeel said...

I agree having Afternoon Delight play over the closing credits was a lovely stroke that choked me up.

All kudos to the Dan storyline, but as someone who has dealt with curators who write WAY too much copy, my favorite moment is Jeremy not being able to process what Dan is telling him about his piece that is 8 minutes too long. After Dan tells him several things he can cut in various ways, Jeremy protests repeatedly, "No really, I just don't see it." That was spot on.

Mapeel said...

Yes, and that would actually be Casey that had the conversation with Jeremy, not Dan.

Anonymous said...

This is sort of a general, series long observation, but relevant to the point that Jeremy/Natalie is greater than Dana/Casey. Can't really argue that Dana/Casey didn't reach absurd levels of annoying throughout the run, but at the time of the original airings, I began to find it difficult to tolerate Natalie. I loved Jeremy from the start, really liked Natalie from the start, liked them together, but grew to find her too silly and obnoxious. I rewatched the series in a massive weekend marathon session a couple of years ago when I was sick and everything changed. Seeing it all back to back to back made the Jeremy/Natalie relationship so much better. Her annoying personality quirks and the whole "I don't recognize the breakup" (which at the time was almost as irritating as "we were on a break") grated on my nerves initially, but not after the repeat viewings.

BF said...

Longest 30 second apology ever.

I realize this isn't 24, or even a "real-time" episode like Thespis, but one of the things that bugged me then (and in this re-watch) is just how *off* all the timestamps are. "60 seconds back" doesn't mean 10 seconds later.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Longest 30 second apology ever.

Yeah, the one thing that scene is missing is Dana or someone else in the control room saying, "Okay, what are we going to cut now because of that?" You can argue it would have taken away from the gravity of the moment, but if Casey can crack a SVB joke, we can see how these people need to do their jobs even at an emotional time like that.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Massive props to Charles and Sorkin for the A plot. Nothing to add.

The B plot with Jeremy, he might have come off as too naive. Either that or he's just too much of a sports snob. He didn't think that all these other people in the room understoof the intricacies of the sport or the art of the pitcher/batter battles? Conceited much? I'd rather he be glib than clueless.

Granted, Sorkin was probably trying to say something about writing for tv and the compromises and how although he wanted to imbue his show with many messages to raise the level of discourse or appreciation for the art in the visual medium. So was Jeremy like his stand-in into this world?

Chuck Nottheshow said...

"No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks."

Probably best line of the entire series. I loved Isaac like I loved Leo. Sorkin is never as idealistic as when he is describing bosses that do not exist in real life.

Carrie said...

Just reading that quote from Dan at the beginning of this review made me choke up. Whenever I'm watching newer Sorkin and get annoyed at how preachy he's become, I think of this moment and how perfect it was and it almost (almost!) gets me through. This was helpful for the few episodes I attempted of Studio 60.

I'm going to echo a lot of people here, but: seriously. Why doesn't Josh Charles get more work? I even enjoyed him on In Treatment, despite his annoying character.

Andrea said...

I do not own the DVD of the series, but in reading your reviews I can recall almost every minute of these two episodes like it was yesterday. I loved this show - it was so bright and smart. Yes, it had its weak moments, but a bad night of Sports Night was better than most anything else at the time. The twist of the apology left the air in the room thick with emotion. Casey's physical connection to Dan afterwards was so soft yet so electric. Great writing, acting and direction. Just a perfect moment in TV history.

Alyson said...

This was the first episode of the series I ever saw (I didn't catch the pilot until much later) and I think it's a much better entree into the world of Sports Night than the pilot itself. Just a terrific performance by Josh Charles, who almost out-Olbermanns Keith Olbermann (Danny is based on KO; Casey is an amalgam of Dan Patrick and Craig Kilborn).

The B plot with Jeremy, he might have come off as too naive. Either that or he's just too much of a sports snob. He didn't think that all these other people in the room understoof the intricacies of the sport or the art of the pitcher/batter battles? Conceited much? I'd rather he be glib than clueless.

Jeremy is, at heart, a sports purist; he's also someone whose background is in newspapers, not television, and the transition can be difficult in the early going. As someone who used to work with folks who worked on a show very similar to SN (the show-within-the-show), only on a "third-place show on a fourth-rate network" would anyone have the patience, much less the time, to deal with Jeremy's shenanigans. Jeremy's issues are explained in more detail next week (yet another example of Isaac Jaffee as World's Best Boss).

A.J. said...

"Your analogy is perfectly apt in type but not degree -- y'know, because it's an analogy -- so I'm going to strenuously challenge the degree side while ignoring that with which I cannot successfully disagree" is the favorite straw man of preachy d-bags the world over. It says unflattering things that anyone would find that a highlight of the series.

Pete said...

Alan, are you going to keep to the pace of one SN episode review/recap per week? There is a total of forty-five episodes; does that mean we won't be done for another forty-five weeks? Or will you just stop when summer is over and wait until next summer to pick it up again?

Alan Sepinwall said...

As of now, I'm doing one episode per week through the summer (excepting whatever weeks I'm on vacation and/or at press tour). If things change in my schedule, maybe I'll start doubling up at some point to at least get through the first season.

It's not an ideal situation, but it's what I can do.

filmcricket said...

Uch. I know this is a fan favourite episode, but the first time I saw it, the actual apology ruined for me what had been a pretty good episode up to that point, because it's a well Sorkin goes to more than I'd like.

I completely agree that it's a tour-de-force for Josh Charles; he plays the hell out of it. But having come to SN after TWW, this reminded me of nothing so much as the pilot of the latter.

Danny's having a reasoned discussion with his bosses about, essentially, freedom of expression, and however pedantic it might come across, it's a conversation that a journalist absolutely should be having.

Toby's having a (relatively) reasoned discussion with Mary Marsh about, essentially, separation of church and state, which is a conversation representatives of the government absolutely should be having.

And then, just to make sure we know who's right, and who we're supposed to be rooting for, Sorkin saddles Danny with a dead brother and POTUS with a granddaughter who's received hate mail. It's like he doesn't trust the audience to make their own decisions about the arguments he's presented, so he has to hit them over the head with these personal moments, so that if you do, for some reason, disagree with Dan or Toby, you feel like a jackass for doing so. It's audience hand-holding and I really don't like it.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Sorry, I want to piggyback on what filmcricket said and put this out there: "Does The Wire also kind of suffer from that problem?" There's a lot of social commentary and it's leaning toward certain ideologies and proselytizing certain position on some gray area questions.

It probably wasn't so heavy-handed as some moments of Sorkin. But I'm just wondering if it's claim on being the GOAT of tv shows is dependent on the viewer's perspective of society, at least more so than more character-driven shows (Sopranos). And Deadwood also refrained from being didactic in the way The Wire was.

My main beef: no more Greatest of All-Time label for any show. If it's brilliant then it's brilliant but no GOAT titles please.

Brandy said...

Casey's moment where he slides over to Dan with light banter is when this show owned me. Their friendship was what sold it to me. Loved the apology, teared up a little, but it was that followed by the easy banter in the tense situation... it was a show I knew I loved.

It's been a long time since I've been any Sports Night fandom places but at the time I felt like I was the only person in the world who felt the Dana and Casey moments brought down the energy of the show (You're wearing my shirt"... and smoky) being the exceptions to the rule.

Natalie and Jeremy on the other hand? Gold! My favorite moments for them being, though, from Shoe Money Tonight rather than the more obvious choices.

Hal Incandenza said...

Got chills reading your snippet from Dan's speech. Great, great TV.

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.

Anonymous said...

This episode didn't do anything for me when I first saw it - long after SN was off the air. But it's grown on me after a few more viewings. I love Dan's strategy of making them wait for the meeeting and Casey pointing out that he's just making them mad - "Specifically you're making Isaac mad."

The B story of Casey not being cool also plays out later in Season 2 with the rigged poll. And that brings me to my real point: Alan - you gotta double up on the episodes. At 1 per week I figure we'll barely get to the Six Southern Gentlemen. We won't learn of the exploits of Alberto Fedrigotti, or the goings on at the Hotel de Espana, to say nothing of the importance of someone who can make glass tubes. And I think it's those later season 1 episodes where SN really found its voice. For me, anyway.

Oh well, I'll just have to look forward to next week when Jeremy gets the call. And btw - I still don't know what that means.

filmcricket said...

"Jeremy wins every single argument the two ever have."

That's interesting. I will have to rewatch, because my impression is that Natalie wins an awful lot of them (albeit often because she's able to distract Jeremy by putting on one of his white dress shirts).

She "wins" in "Shoe Money Tonight"; she wins in S2, Ep 1; she wins in whichever episode it is where Jeremy loses an award to Sally, and, without wanting to spoil anything, I think she wins the argument about going clubbing.

Hatfield said...

I used to watch this show when Comedy Central showed the reruns, mostly because I've always like Guillaume, and when I was a teenager I watched the movie Threesome with Josh Charles 50+ times. Haven't had time to go back to this yet, what with Burn Notice, Band of Brothers, and showing my girlfriend The Wire, but I'm glad it'll be on here when I get to it.

However, I do remember that Rosa Parks line, and even as a dumb high schooler I thought it was hilarious.

PS Happy birthday, Aaron Sorkin! It was yesterday (as was mine, yippee!), but this post made me remember that we shared.

Isaac Lin said...

filmcricket: I don't believe that Danny's apology was intended to be a way to sell the audience on Danny's opinion. The brilliance of the apology is that it sidestepped the argument between Danny and the network by talking about something else other than the controversy, and yet still communicated the point about drugs being a destructive force on society, while also providing a relevant reason for apologizing, instead of just "I'm sorry you didn't agree with me". As an added bonus for the both the real world and "Sports Night" audience, it gave us a deeper insight into Danny's character. (And in the Sports Night world, I imagine it resulted in a nice ratings boost for the show.)

greebs said...

If we are going for great Sports Night quotes, this could go on for awhile. But nothing to me beats the following - it's posted on my desk, and I believe in it daily:

"If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you." -- Isaac Jaffe.

Jordan said...

I don't have a lot to add other that to say that this episode is my favorite half hour of tv ever produced.

Theresa said...

I had forgotten how much I liked Kayla Blake as Kim. Wish she worked more after the series ended.

My dad, who re-watches the series at least once a year, has long maintained that Kim is his favorite character.

This was the first episode I caught after my dad insisted I watch it, and boy, is it a good one. Not my all-time favorite episode, but a good one nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Just got done watching the entire series and can't wait til you start talking about Terri Polo. If you could make references to roles that the cast went on to star in, that would be impressive. I can't recall any show that was cancelled that had a cast that went on to accomplish so much - even the guest stars.

Brandy said...

Jeremy probably wins the argument about Galveston... but I can never give it to him because he disses Galveston as being a cow town when it's a freaking island. Plenty of reasons to diss Galveston but there aren't a whole heck of a lot of cows there.

Plus it's an hour from Houston. Houston's a big market.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

Greebs favorite quote is also mine (although if you are watching it post West Wing you probably think of it from Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc)

But on Sports Night it's in the next episode, I think... which is an episode I love because Jeremy gets the call!

Mike C said...

This episode is probably my favorite for Dan's amazing storyline, and the silliness of Jeremy's 8.5 minute highlight reel. ("You can make it shorter.")

I can't really think of an example of "Afternoon Delight" not being used effectively - Sports Night, Anchorman, Arrested Development. You can't go wrong!

Hannah Lee said...

True, Mike C, but Sports Night did it first.

Alan, this episode is a good example of something you mentioned in your pilot commentary: Sorkin really could pack a lot into a 22 minute episode. It had: the dramatic A plot with Dan, that took a turn and opened up so much depth for that character, the continuation of the SN/CSC control issues, and a couple entertaining comedy subplots. And what ties it all together for me are these wonderful characters and their relationships as they crisscrossed the various plots: Isaac being at turns annoyed, protective, and lovingly critical with Dan, Casey being ridiculous with the crew, Dan, and Dana about his lack of cool, patient and then exasperated with Natalie and Jeremy (while being the brunt of everyone's jokes) and then supportive of Dan in the end, etc, etc.

The end of the episode was just perfect for me. It hit the reality of a live show (with Natalie telling Casey to be ready to go to commercial when Dan seemed to be freezing), the seriousness of the moment for Dan (and a glimpse of issues that would haunt that character the entire series), the depth of the Dan/Casey relationship, and comedy, all in 2 minutes.

A couple of little things I enjoyed:

- "Go sit your sorry a** down in that meeting"

- "Well, first I'd have to disabuse you of the notion that you were ever cool before"

- "Where do you think this perception comes from?" "I think it comes from reality."

- Dave reaching out to Chris to try to stop him from irritating Dana more during the "It's the monitors/It's the gels" banter.

- Casey gently pulling/wheeling himself over to Dan after the apology (instead of staying put & leaning in or more forcefully pushing himself closer) as he helps Danny return to normal.

- The episode ending echoing the the pilot, fading out on Dan/Casey's banter at the end.

- “Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute?” “Very, very, cool.” (I don't know why; maybe it's the pure randomness of the Zamfir reference.)

Anonymous said...

(sorry if this shows up twice, blogger told me I timed out...)

@filmcricket: I agree with you about Natalie, but I would actually distinguish between what Natalie does and what Jeremy does. Jeremy wins the argument, but Natalie wins the fight. Case in point: the white dress shirt.

The monitors/gels argument is one of my fave moments. I love the support staff on "Sports Night". I love that all of the characters were funny and important. The early seasons of "The West Wing" had that too. Once Sorkin left it got messy and the people in the background that I always loved were nowhere to be found or were just generic characters. "Studio 60" never had anything close to either. On "Sports Night" nobody was ever wasted or used as filler.

dhc said...

While Dan's apology gets me every time, it has always bothered me that it seems like it is news to everyone, Isaac included. While he may not have known the specifics, I never could believe Isaac didn't know this part of Dan's history. At some part he would have to have asked Dan if any of this had to do with his brother, especially the day he stopped taking drugs.

Anonymous said...

Do the others know? Whenever I watch this episode, I think about that and try to see the day with that in mind.

It's the hardest day of the year for Danny and he's always grateful when it falls on a workday. Just as he had promised never to comment on Casey's issues with Lisa, he has made Casey promise never to tell anyone at work about what happened to Sam and to help him keep the anniversary of his death as normal as possible. It helps and doesn't help that the article hits the stands that day -- a distraction, a source of pride, but scary, too. And then there's the silliness about the stalker -- maybe something Danny invented to give him something to chatter about, too keep anyone from getting too close.

Casey's obsession about the cool/not cool thing is very real to Casey, of course, but I also believe he uses it to keep Danny amused and distracted. In their talk in the office there's a fond look Danny gives him as Casey argues that he IS cool -- and Danny gratefully continues the banter -- that banter that is so important to how they connect -- a very safe, soothing kind of thing.

Isaac knows about Sam's death -- you'll never convince me that as close as they are Danny hasn't told him -- maybe late at night over drinks in Isaac's office. It's one of the reasons Isaac tells him he loves him before he lets him have it about Rosa Parks. And, of course, there's that "Come on, Daniel" as he watches him struggle on-air. Isaac knows what's going on inside that head.

Hal Incandenza said...

By the way, Alan, to second what everyone has already said: these recaps are all kinds of awesome. Thank you.

Linda said...

The reason "The Apology" never seems to me like Preachy Sorkin (and nobody but nobody has whined about Preachy Sorkin in the last ten years more than me) is that I don't think the point that's being made is really about drugs, pro or con.

I think this is yet another episode that isn't about the broader social issue; it's about media companies. Dan isn't offended because the network is anti-drug. Dan is offended because the network is neither anti-drug nor pro-drug, but is reducing the entire issue to whatever answer it believes will be best for Dan's popularity.

Dan has always seemed disgusted with the network not because of their specific position on marijuana legalization, but because he feels like he's being lectured about the seriousness of something by people who don't take it one-tenth as seriously as he does.

But the recap nails it, in that to me, the best part of the entire episode is those last ten seconds where Casey rolls over his chair to talk to Dan. My favorite thing about Sports Night, of the many things I love about it, is that every individual relationship between any two people is very specifically and lovingly drawn, and that moment speaks volumes about the relationship between Dan and Casey.

Eyeball Wit said...

I can't recall any show that was cancelled that had a cast that went on to accomplish so much - even the guest stars.

Anon 4:26, just look up a short-lived show called E/R. It featured both George Clooney, Jason Alexander, and oscar winner Mary McDonnell.

Or Day By Day, which had Julia Louis Dreyfus and Courtney Thorne Smith.

None of the Sports Nighters really went on to become really *huge* stars. They mostly went on to similar roles in slightly more popular shows.

Anonymous said...

Don't know where to post this. Most critics loved MODERN FAMILY. Don't recall hearing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Eyeball Wit: I disagree.

Firstly: ER lasted 15 seasons compared to SN's two. That's more than seven times as many episodes to feature guest stars, and even then, the majority of them were already famous.

Secondly: Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Joshua Malina, Lisa Edelstein, Sabrina Lloyd, Paula Marshall, Ted McGinley, Teri Polo... the list goes on and on.

Anonymous said...

Anon, Eyeball Wit was referring to E/R, a short lived sitcom, and not the vastly popular ER. Both featured Clooney, but it's just a coincidence.

Hannah Lee said...

I remember hearing that when you watch Sports Night, some of the behind the scenes areas you seen are actually the parts of the real "Sports Night" set, and many of the people who were seen on screen working on the fictional Sports Night "show within a show" are people who actually worked on Sports Night, the ABC tv show we saw.

According to the DVD extras, this episode has a good example of that. If you watch the scene where Jeremy is working on his feature with Casey, the women seen patiently editing the footage while Jeremy and Casey try to resolve their creative differences (and then Natalie and Dana pipe in) is actually Janet Ashikaga, the editor for all of the Sports Night episodes (plus some West Wing and Dirty Sexy Money episodes, among many others). She also gets an onscreen mention by Dan and Casey in one my favorite episodes, Season 1's Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee.

Thanks again, Alan, for doing this rewind.

Anonymous said...

Each time I see this episode, I'm amazed all over again by how long Dana and Isaac allow Danny to pull himself together. All that on-air silence. Earlier, before the show, Dana orders everyone to get "in the zone". It's one of Danny's favorite places, as we learn in another episode, and, luckily, on this night, he manages to find it.

Another touch I'm fond of: After Dana comes in and orders the life sucked out of Jeremy's highlight tape, Casey departs, saying he's got to get dressed for the show, saying: "The storm clouds are gathering."

Whenever I hear Jeremy obsess about those storm clouds, I think of Winston Churchill. The first volume of his 6-volume history of World War II is "The Gathering Storm". Volume II is "Their Finest Hour". Yes, I know, I probably shouldn't draw comparisons between WWII and a TV show, Winston Churchill and Aaron Sorkin, the British people and Dan Rydell -- but it's in the nature of Sports Night fandom to over-analyze and obsess, so there are you are.

Mike said...

Kayla Blake? Sexiest-looking woman on TV? Yeah, she was OK.

Sandman said...

You've expressed everything I love about this episode, just as I'd want to, and better than I could. This was actually the first episode of the series I ever saw (somehow I missed the pilot when it first aired in Canada) and it hooked me but good. I really liked how Sorkin sketched out the relationships between the characters, especially Dan's relationships with Isaac and Casey, with such economy and vividness. Everything is in place by the second episode. On the other hand, you're completely right about Casey's and Dana's acting like idiots most of the time. In my house we don't mention the Dreaded Dating Plan - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'm really enjoying your rewatch, and I'm thrilled that you love this underappreciated show so much. Keep up the wonderful work.