Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sports Night rewind: "Mary Pat Shelby" & "The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail"

Okay, I'm going to give this another try and review two "Sports Night" episodes in one go. Spoilers for "Mary Pat Shelby" and "The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail" coming up just as soon as I take a vacation from my values...
"I sent her there on purpose." -Dana
I don't know that I want to keep reviewing these episodes two at a time -- particularly since the next two, "Dear Louise" and "Thespis," are both unrelated and good enough to deserve their own reviews -- but as these particular episodes are more or less a two-parter (no "to be continued..." at the end of the first, but a "previously on..." at the start of the second), I'm okay with it here.

More than sports, or politics, or wacky romantic misunderstandings, "Sports Night" is first and foremost about work -- about the kind of workplace many of us would like to have, and about the challenges of keeping it as idealized as we want. Frequently, the threats to the sanctity of Sports Night(*) come from above, in the form of Luther Sachs's minions, but here the problems come from within, which makes the conflict feel that much more potent. Most of the time, the people at Sports Night are as much friends as colleagues, and these episodes -- "Mary Pat Shelby" in particular -- show how tricky things can get when you need a colleague to do something you would never ask a friend to do.

(*) For the sake of my sanity -- and/or to avoid using the phrase show-within-the-show 8 million times this summer -- I think I'm henceforth going to use italics to refer to the CSC version of it, and quotes to refer to the ABC version.

While Sports Night is supposed to be this wonderful place to work, filled with eccentric but supportive people, they're not saints. They make mistakes, or they make bad choices for ostensibly noble reasons, or they put their faith where they shouldn't. And when that happens, we get a fiasco like Dana sending Natalie to interview Christian Patrick in the hopes of sparking a controversy which will be good for the show -- and we have Natalie going along with it because she trusts Dana a little too implicitly.

While Natalie is Patrick's victim in "Mary Pat Shelby," and continues to suffer the emotional fallout of the incident in "The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail," these episodes feel like more of a showcase for Dana than for her. It's Dana who makes the choice to do the Patrick interview even with the restrictions from his lawyers, it's Dana who sends Natalie instead of Jeremy, it's Dana who kicks Patrick and his crew out of the studio, and it's Dana who tells Natalie that -- unofficial family or no -- she needs to get her act together, or else. And Felicity Huffman is wonderful throughout.

"Mary Pat Shelby" is the stronger of the two, and not just because it's the first episode of the series to ditch the laugh track.(As I recall, Sorkin and Schlamme got ABC to relent as a one-time experiment to see how viewers responded; obviously, response wasn't good enough, and it was back the next week.) The conflict is greater in "MPS," but it's also a better illustration of what "Sports Night" could be at its best. Like "The Apology," it contrasts a fairly dark main storyline (Christian Patrick assaults Natalie) with a subplot that seems fairly goofy (Dan wants to grow a goatee), then finds a way to combine the two at the end to create a moment that's simultaneously funny and moving, as Dan and Casey have Dana's back by standing up to Patrick's lawyer in this exchange:
"This is a third-place show on a fourth-rate network." -Evans
"Yeah, but that's all about to change once I grow a goatee." -Dan
"He's just crazy enough to do it." -Casey
It's not quite "Can I just say one more thing about the Starland Vocal Band?," but it's awfully close.

"Morning Mail" is, by design, a less intense episode. We're now a little removed from the Patrick incident, and everyone but a distracted Natalie and a sleep-deprived Jeremy has more or less moved on from it. Dan is trying to get Casey to stop talking about Rostenkowski, and Casey in turn is obsessed with Gordon -- until, in a nice moment, Gordon tries to bond with Casey over their shared hatred of Rostenkowski, and inadvertently makes Casey realize he's being too hard on the coach -- and so things are a bit lighter throughout.

But Sabrina Lloyd and, especially, Joshua Malina (who by this point has left the over-the-top mannerisms of his pilot performance long behind) both do fine jobs of playing their characters at the end of their respective ropes. And while Sorkin will drag out the Dana/Casey stuff past all reason, I like that he more or less puts Jeremy and Natalie together by the end of the sixth episode, and does it in an unusual way. These are two people getting together at their worst, not their best, and yet being together (even if, right now, Jeremy's just napping at their newsroom picnic) seems to make the bad stuff feel okay.

A lot of good stuff to discuss here. And speaking of which, some other thoughts:

• In my quest to keep track of recurring Sorkin-isms that will continue to pop up in his other series (and/or ones that had already appeared in the likes of "A Few Good Men" and "The American President"), I couldn't help but notice the use in "Mary Pat Shelby" of the gag where a character gives a long speech and the intended audience retorts with, "I wasn't really listening." It's Sorkin's way, I suppose, of trying to self-regulate his tendency to write these long-winded, preachy monologues in the first place.

• More recurring Sorkin devices: Natalie rattles off her resume near the end of "MPS." And Jeremy runs down some of his credentials -- including a degree in Applied Mathematics -- in "Morning Mail."

• While you would assume Ray Wise is great enough that he would have become a Sorkin repertory player, he didn't turn up on the "West Wing" until years after Sorkin had left.

• The Boston reporter Natalie is referring to in "Mary Pat Shelby" is Lisa Olson, who was more or less driven out of town after she accused several players on the Patriots of sexually harassing her. She wound up moving to Australia to work for a sister newspaper, though by the time this episode aired (or maybe a little bit afterwards), she returned to the States as a columnist for the New York Daily News. (She left that job last year after allegedly getting sick of dealing with Mike Lupica.)

• The other ripped-from-the-headlines aspect of the story is that Christian Patrick is undoubtedly named after Christian Peter, who, during his time as a defensive tackle at Nebraska, was arrested and/or convicted of multiple crimes, and most infamously was accused of raping a freshman girl twice in two days. The Patriots drafted Peter, then freaked out after he was convicted for trying to choke a woman in a bar, and refused to sign him. At the time of this episode, Peter was a backup for the Giants, who signed him on the condition that he attend counseling for alcohol abuse, anger management, etc.

• Patrick is played by Brad Henke, who was causing trouble on "Lost" towards the end of this season.

• I love the "MBS" scene where Dana tries to convince Dan and Casey that she's right to trade Natalie's story for Mary Pat Shelby's, and Dan hits her with "You had me until the last part." It's so rare to see characters on television having an ethical debate like this where no one's getting too upset or arguing the point too much -- these are just adults trying to convince each other of their position.

• Dan has some fine moments in both episodes, but I particularly like the scene in "Morning Mail" where he talks to Jeremy about the majesty of New York, which perfectly sets up the use of "Someone to Watch Over Me" -- written, of course, by the Gershwins -- at the episode's end.

• The running gag in "Morning Mail" about Casey's conversational anal-retentiveness is very funny.

Coming up next: Definitely "Dear Louise," and maybe "Thespis" as well. Gonna play that by ear.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

These episodes (like so many) always make me think "what happened to Josh Charles?" He is so good in these episodes, being both funny and dramatic, that I just dont know why he never broke out. His upcoming work with Teri Polo, and then his season 2 work with the hot babe therapist, is also fantastic.

I remember reading somewhere that he and Sorkin didn't get along, so maybe that has something to do with it. Charles would have been awesome in The West Wing.


Brandy said...

Just say The Farnsworth Invention last night. Sorkin was there for talk back. He's not always great in interviews but he was great fun last night.

Anyway Farnsworth Invention which I liked a lot took me out of it twice when he did the small potatoes/big potatoes and in the "he deserved better in my hands"... especially the later as it came at a crucial moment.

Add me to the list that wishes Josh Charles worked more. However, I expect that it is on him that he doesn't.

Love the relationship between Danny and Jeremy in season one. And also the relationship between Danny and Natalie. The relationship between Issaac and Danny.... but that's not pertinent to this situation.

But what I love how this show does strong non-romantic relationships. Sorkin does it well in Sports Night and that bond, I think, is one of the things that doesn't work as well in Studio 60.

I think he does it best in Sports Night.

Thespis is my favorite silly episode and I'll be looking forward to it in the next couple of weeks! As much as I hate to admit it, I think both eps deserve to stand on their own. But if you keep with two a week we get through more eps, so I'll deal.

Anonymous said...

There was so much good in both of these episodes, but the running bits about Danny's goatee are the parts that still occasionally pop into my head and make me laugh out loud.

Myles said...

I think these are the episodes where it really hit me - "The Apology" had me pretty good, don't get me wrong, but here it really felt like the show was capable of balancing the comedy and drama, and to handle the aftermath of this particular event with just as much care as the event itself. Huffman, as you note, is bloody fantastic in that moment where she pieces together precisely what she did, and admits that it was far more conscious than she actually wants to realize.

Ditto on the Josh Charles note, DamnYankees - I've been remiss in getting to In Treatment, and when I pieced together that he was on the show it gave me another reason to not skip Season One (I'm spoiled, not that it impacts every story).

I also cast my vote for individual reviews of the episodes that merit individual reviews - having to artificially tie them together, or sacrificing length/quality to see two of them posted in the same week, isn't going to do certain episodes justice. When I sat down to write about the first season (if anyone's interested in reading said thoughts, you can do so here), I tried to cover everything at once and I know there's many individual eps. that deserve the Sepinwall treatment, and I'd hate to see them not get it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, also, Alan missed a line which made me laugh out loud in this one. When they are discussing what famous people actually had goattees, someone throws out "Satan". Killed me, especially Danny's reaction.


Ellie said...

Re: recurring Sorkin devices, don't forget girls can't tell jokes. However, I think it worked better for Dana than for Harriet in S60.

Is it just me, or is the Dana/Casey stuff in Morning Mail particularly cringeworthy?

Rachel said...

I think "Mary Pat Shelby" was the first episode I saw -- I can't remember if it was the first run or not, but it was back when I was still in high school, maybe even middle school, and my brother wanted desperately to convince me that this show wasn't just about sports, and that I would like it. And I did -- I loved it. And swallowed it whole.

Except. I've now grown older and more sensitive to what was actually going on in this episode -- and, sadly, I've now had friends in similar situations. Every time I watch it, I get so incredibly angry at Dana for never asking Natalie what she wanted. Maybe Natalie trusts Dana implicitly and agrees with whatever Dana decides, but Natalie should have been in the room -- if not for the negotiation with Christian Patrick's people, then definitely for the pre-negotiation. You do not trade away someone's legal rights for an interview without actually consulting said person first -- not taking Dan's word for it, not making an assumption, but actually getting her consent.

Yes, we're not supposed to support Dana's actions, but the fact that she did that makes me really angry, and really unsympathetic towards someone who's so often supposed to be sympathetic. I don't think I really like Dana until well into the second season.

Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd are note-perfect in every scene, though.

Heather K said...

Interesting to hear all the comments on Josh Charles. My roommate just moved from New York where she worked with a dowtown off-b'way theatre company that has several famous actor types who work there a lot. As a result she kind of knows Josh Charles, and she had never seen Sports Night.

As she was about finishing her first time through the series earlier this month she had to tell me all about it. In real life she thought he was extremely annoying and childish and could not understand how he could even get work being that much of a jerk (all her opinion and totally unsubstantiated hearsay, I want to reiterate), but even she thought he was wonderful as Dan Rydell and was totally won over.

I wonder if her perception of him speaks to why he doesn't get more high profile work.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

I love the "MBS" scene where Dana tries to convince Dan and Casey that she's right to trade Natalie's story for Mary Pat Shelby's, and Dan hits her with "You had me until the last part.

Yup. Agreed. On bad TV this scene would have actors screaming at each other and other histrionics. Sometimes all tv has to do is play scenes low-key and it becomes effective.

Dan has some fine moments in both episodes, but I particularly like the scene in "Morning Mail" where he talks to Jeremy about the majesty of New York, which perfectly sets up the use of "Someone to Watch Over Me" -- written, of course, by the Gershwins -- at the episode's end.

Is Gershwin music now synonymous with New York? Like is "Rhapsody Blues" the state song? Anyway, I can't listen to anyone describing the beauty of NYC without thinking Woody Allen. I think he needs to copyright that *beep* ASAP. (Read on imdb that Allen wants Carli Bruni in one of his movies and my reaction was: he finally moved on to women in their 40s, congrats)

Mon Chi Chi said...

I fell in love with Felicity Huffman in MPS - she's ridiculously good showing the combination of pressure/guilt/desire to "do her job" well.

I'm also pretty in love with Josh Charles, but in a different way ;)

Ditto, Alan, on the moment when Danny says "you had me until that last part" - one of the great things about Danny's character is his ability to not allow his friends get away with moral ambiguity. He doesn't stop them from making mistakes, but he certainly wants them to acknowledge that they are doing so.

One last thing, you mention that Sorkin is about an idealizes workplace, which I agree up to a point. More so, it always seems to me to be about workplaces that are so consuming it creates a defacto "family", and so many of the conflicts are about an unintentional familial structure. One of the reasons I felt Studio 60 didn't work was because it simply didn't feel like I was watching a family.

Sam Sevr said...

I'll echo pretty much everyone else in saying these are 2 terrific episodes. I think I enjoyed the lighter "Head Coach" more but MPS is excellent as well. Starting with the super somber conversation Dan and the crew are having, only to find out it's about him growing a goatee?? Beautiful.

Then the great part of the "You had me until that last part" line is as Danny points out, it's really not a disagreement about what to do, but how to sell it. We've been so conditioned to expect conflict and yelling and this just turns out SOOO much more effective.

I also like in MPS that we see just how comfortable Jeremy is becoming. He's the one that figures out it's was Natalie that was assaulted. He has the visceral reaction the Dana was looking to get from Christian Patrick. He's gone from worrying about how to fit in to protecting the people he cares about.

On to "Head Coach", I have to disagree with you Alan. Maybe this is being influenced by their conversation next week but I don't see Gordon trying to bond with Casey AT ALL. I see Gordon subtly but purposely leading Casey to realizing he (Casey) is wrong. Gordon throws out suggestions for Casey to shoot down, basically saying "I know nothing, but let's see what the expert comes up with" because he knows Casey won't have anything better.

And the Dana / Jeremy "You Like Natalie" conversation has always been one of my favorites. "14,200?" "And Change." "Very Quixotic."

R.A. Porter said...

I'm with @Sam Sevr on Gordon's motives. He was definitely engaging in a little Socratic exercise with Casey to get him to change his mind, most likely as a display of intellectual dominance. It's a fine bit of writing really well played by the criminally underrated McGinley.

Mon Chi Chi said...

Agree with the others on Gordon - I really liked that he wasn't a "bad guy" on the show (at least before the thing that comes up later that I will leave unspoiled), and was really used to point out Dana's and Casey's flaws.

Linda said...

I don't believe Gordon was trying to change Casey's mind at all. I believe Gordon was trying to show off that he could competently talk sports with the sports guy. I've never seen anything from Gordon to suggest that he wouldn't have just told Casey he was wrong if that's what he thought. Why be tricky?

R.A. Porter said...

@Linda, telling Casey he was wrong would have further cemented his position. Gordon's a smart character and a smart litigator who knows the best way for *him* to get Casey to change his mind is to convince him he agrees so Casey has to rethink his position. Gordon knows what Casey thinks of him.

By getting him to change his mind, Gordon scored a point in the grand (and petty) competition.

Theresa said...

I don't believe Gordon was trying to change Casey's mind at all. I believe Gordon was trying to show off that he could competently talk sports with the sports guy.

I'm with you, Linda. Plus, I always thought that Casey changed his mind not because Gordon showed him the error of his ways, but more to intentionally NOT bond with Gordon since it's pretty clearly established that these two are not going to become buddies.

Anonymous said...

Tony Orlando?!? That was a "good" save. Natalie was right, people should have been mad at her. That Tony Orlando bit would have become the new "boom goes the dynamite" on YouTube.

I guess they were being accurate. Their sports show really was 3rd rate.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to read Alan's take that MPS is all about Dana. For me it has always been Danny who wrecks me in this episode.

The "and this what friends gear up for" scene between he & Natalie in the editing bay may be my favorite non-Isaac SN moment.

Matt said...

One thing I've always loved about the show is that it's one of the few LA-based shows that gets New York. Sports Night, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, are about it, rather than Friends, which while NYC set, was not "New York."

rhamilton said...

One negative but about The Morning Mail is Jeremy writing an 'application' to calculate a dinner place. It sounds really stupid and doesn't have anything to do with how anyone would behave, regardless of how geeky they are.

Linda said...

"Gordon's a smart character and a smart litigator who knows the best way for *him* to get Casey to change his mind is to convince him he agrees so Casey has to rethink his position."

I don't think so. In all the times I've watched that scene, I've seen it the same way Alan did. Gordon is a windbag with a very low-end understanding of sports (which he proves in many situations other than this). But he loves to hear himself talk, so like all sports-fan know-nothings, he lectures about what the guy SHOULD have done instead. And all his ideas turn out to be stupid, and Casey realizes that his expertise forces him to be more measured about the situation than a guy like Gordon is going to be.

The "he knew Casey would only harden his position if he disagreed openly" seems like a really unlikely conclusion compared to the clear implication of the scene.

I just can't see Gordon engaging in this complicated of a Jedi mind trick just to change Casey's mind about a football coach in such a way that nobody except him would ever know what he did. I don't think he'd ever bother arguing with Casey about football except to show him up, and there's nothing about that exchange that would ever make Casey feel like Gordon showed him up. In fact, he walks away feeling smarter than Gordon about sports -- which he is.

R.A. Porter said...

@Linda, the wry smile McGinley gives at the end of the exchange looks just like the one I'd have on my face after besting a male competitor in that exact way. Maybe I'm reading too much into it but that's how I believe he was playing it.

Also, the little body quake of disgust Peter Krause gives at the end looks like the kind of visceral reaction I or one of my friends would have if we'd been bested the way I described.

Given what I know about Sorkin as a person and the types of competitive alpha males he tends to write, that interpretation of the scene certainly fits. Whether it was intended that way or not only he could definitively say.

Isaac Lin said...

re: Gordon's smile: I always thought of it as Gordon thinking, if you're so smart, rejecting all my suggestions, what do you think the coach should have done?

Hannah Lee said...

I've always loved the scene in MPS with Dan and Natalie. "You're going to tell me to be strong." "It's not my experience that you need to be told that." He's quietly supportive of her, while at the same time respecting her. He approaches her like a friend who is a strong professional woman, not a little girl who needs to be protected or rescued.

Agree that Huffman is very strong in these episodes; I think everyone does very good work here. In <30 minute episodes with such dense dialog, it's impressive how much depth these characters have, and how much space/time the actors are given to show that complexity in a way that feels natural. The scene I mentioned above is one example; the scene with Dana & Casey in Isaac's office is another, where she starts to fess up about her intentions, looks for support from Casey and gets it, even though he disagreed with her decisions.(Not to imply that it's all the actors' work: the writing (of course), camerawork & blocking, lighting, etc all deliver.)

Alan, I liked some of the little things you mentioned such as the running "goatee" and "conversationally anal-retentive" bits. I also always grin at Dan's near-violent refusal to give up his parka when broadcasting from the over-chilled studio.

Nicole said...

I am on the "Gordon is a windbag" train because I work with too many litigator types that feel the need to win every argument regardless of their actual knowledge of the subject and this scenario felt like the same thing to me. Gordon doesn't seem the insightful type to be able to read Casey properly and then trick him to change his mind.

Tina said...

Late to the discussion, sadly, because Mary Pat Shelby is one of my favorite episodes, and the first one where I knew the show would be one of my favorites. How many other shows would have characters making decisions, weighing consequences, and changing their minds, all in the span of 20-ish minutes? Other sitcoms would have have the comedy be about those crazy indecisive people, but this show manages to find the truth behind, and to have Dana keep her integrity throughout. Huffman's performance is wonderful, and I love the picture of her used in the post; it says so much.

And yes, Josh Charles, and the phrase "this is what friends gear up for" which I've borrowed ever since.

graciela said...

Another favorite Dan Rydell moment:
that wry smile on his face as he gazes fondly at Jeremy asleep on the newsroom floor. "He found it," he says softly.

When he'd told Jeremy to "make it a place that YOU like" Jeremy had asked him where that place was and Dan said "I'll let you know when I find it." Well, of course, it was the new kid, the passionate young man who'd finally found a place where he fit in, who would see it right away. It's true for Dan, too -- it's true for all of them.

In a way, I think Dan's reaction is a mirror image of the one Casey had earlier, when he realizes how he's been behaving in regards to the head coach situation: he's been behaving like the Gordons of the world.

When Casey finally admits he doesn't know what play he'd have called, there's a kind of sweetness in it -- a relief, a self-awareness -- that you know the Gordons of the world will never experience.

Bunting said...

I like these episodes okay, but I feel manipulated in an obvious way at points. I don't mind being manipulated if it's done well, but in spots this felt clunky (Natalie's scene with CP is a good example -- in THIS subplot, the two of them are...alone together? Not credible).

Again, good eps, mostly effective, but to my mind strained a bit too hard to be Important.

Eyeball Wit said...

I'm sorry but Mary Pat Shelby was a mess IMHO, and I say that as a fellow journalist, (and a guy who was assaulted by a Cy Young award winner.)

Imagine that you're doing an interview and Angelina Jolie strips in front of you and then whacks you upside the head. Okay, this isn't as much of a news story (it happens every day, right?)

Still I can't imagine you...
a) pretending it didn't happen
b) you editor being allowed to make the "how to handle it" decision on his/her own, especially with Isaac and the lawyers hovering.
c) Calling it a win when they ended up with a worst-case scenario--no ratings from Mary Pat or Natalie, and yet Natalie still gets raked over the coals. (I haven't watched the second part yet...)

FWIW, in the late 1980s, Darryl Strawberry exposed himself to a female Chicago beat writer, mixing a chocolate sundae in a most, um, unusual way.
She, like Natalie, declined to press the issue.

Sabrina Lloyd is great in this ep, though.

Eyeball Wit said...

Did anyone notice how much Chris Patrick and Gordon look alike. Or were made to look alike, both wearing blue shirts, no tie, under a medium brown blazer?

That, not the Jedi mind trick, is what struck me in the Gordon-Rostenkowski scene.

Anonymous said...

Also: he was writing a "letter" on a "word processor". Which is good because "no one writes letters anymore" due to no one using email yet. Yay!