Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sports Night rewind: "Pilot"

Okay, finally time to get down to the third member of our summer rewind troika, as we look back on the first-ever episode of "Sports Night." Spoilers coming up just as soon as I tell Spike Lee to sit down, shut up, and stop making documentaries about Kobe...
"It's your call, but pretty soon it's going to be my call. Because here's the thing: I can't let it be their call." -Isaac
It's a funny thing, how magic works sometimes.

I was watching the "Sports Night" pilot for the first time in a few years, dutifully taking notes in preparation for writing this post, and all I could seem to do was find things to pick apart: Aaron Sorkin hadn't yet figured out how to write dialogue that felt suited for TV rather than the stage. Joshua Malina was playing to the cheap seats. The studio audience (which I'll get back to at the end) was a colossal miscalculation. Etc., etc., etc. I remembered that I hadn't loved the series pilot in the first place, and understood that the show would get (much) better over time, but there was a part of me that was starting to wonder if maybe I should have watched a couple of episodes before committing to a summer of this show...

...and then Dan and Casey rushed in to watch Ntozake Nelson go for the world record, and the look on Peter Krause's face made me remember exactly why I loved this show in the first place, and why I wanted to re-visit it all these years later.

Yes, it's a sappy moment, but you have to be a sap on some level to enjoy Sorkin, just as you had to be to enjoy Sorkin's spiritual ancestor, Frank Capra. And if you have a weakness for a well-executed emotional touchstone scene, then this show -- and scenes like the climax of this pilot -- will make you fall for it, hard.

A lot of what sells the scene is Krause's expression, both as he watches and then as he calls his son, but much of it comes from how Sorkin laid pipe for it throughout the episode. 22 minutes and change is not a lot of time to tell the kind of stories Sorkin likes to -- while I don't think the show's subject matter lent itself to an hour-long format, I think 30 minutes or so with no commercials would have been just about perfect -- but over the course of those 22 minutes, Sorkin manages to introduce all the characters and how they relate to each other, establish that Casey's having a personal and professional crisis, set up the tension with network management, create a battle over the Ntozake Nelson feature, and even work in Casey's rant about the evils of modern sports. Not all of it comes through cleanly -- that last scene is fairly clunky, particularly Casey's line about "a double homicide in Brentwood" -- but it all comes together very nicely in that moment, and is a promise of greater things to come.

It's easy to dismiss "Sports Night" as some kind of training ground for "The West Wing" -- the place where Sorkin learned how far he could take the repetitive rhythms of his dialogue on TV, where Tommy Schlamme mastered the gliding camerawork that would become his signature -- but that's unfair to this show. No, the stakes aren't as high at a third-place cable sports operation as they were in the White House, and there's no Earth-shaking drama like the President of the United States cursing out God in the middle of National Cathedral. But the performances are wonderful, and Sorkin manages to find the thrilling moments -- and the silly ones -- in our love of sports, and more universally in the way people can fall in love with their jobs under the perfect circumstances.

I'm really looking forward to watching more episodes and discussing them with you.

A few other thoughts:

• So, the laugh track -- or, rather, the studio audience. I think it's important to make the distinction that this was live, albeit very confused, laughter from people sitting in the bleachers watching a taping, as opposed to canned laughter mixed in during post-production. ABC was nervous about doing "Sports Night" without laughter of some kind -- this was 1998, a year and a half before "Malcolm in the Middle" became a big hit and made network executives less afraid of going without the laugh track -- and insisted on the audience. The problem was that Sorkin didn't write in the traditional set-up/punch-line language of the kind of show that traditionally has a laugh track, and the audience had no flipping idea how to respond. You can hear the first tentative chuckles during Dan and Casey's debate about cognac, and then slightly more assertive laughs during the discussion of the kicker who can't kick, but the infrequency of the laughter becomes much more of a distraction than having no laughter at all. Sorkin and Schlamme fought for a while, and eventually got rid of the studio audience by arguing that they needed the studio space taken up by the bleachers to build a few more sets. There was some kind of canned laughter, albeit more muted, for a while after that, before the show was finally free of its tyranny once and for all in season two. While a part of me wishes that the DVDs didn't contain the laughs at all, the purist in me says we should be seeing them the same way people had to watch 'em on ABC back in the day.

• I had forgotten that the opening (and often closing) shot of most episodes was of the World Trade Center. Were the CSC offices supposed to be in the towers, or just somewhere far downtown?

• Interesting that so much of the conflict in the pilot comes from the network pressuring Dan to abandon Casey and move on with a new co-host, when the second season makes it clear that Casey has always been the star, and Dan, for all his talent, is viewed as the guy riding coattails. I'm not saying the two points of view are in conflict -- if Casey had really been this angry for a long time, I don't think it would matter how bright his star used to be -- but it definitely raised my eyebrow when I revisited the episode.

• So, who does Malina sound more like in the Spike Lee scene: Woody Allen or Wallace Shawn? Or a yet-to-be-named third option? Malina would find the right level quickly, but he's really broad here.

• Sorkin really loves to have his characters rattle off their resumes, doesn't he?

• Back when the show was running, I'd get a letter or e-mail a few times a month from a "Sports Night" viewer confused by what Dan Rydell means when he says "those stories and more." ("What stories is he talking about?") The idea, of course, is that we're only seeing what's said in the studio, not what the fictional CSC viewer at home sees, and Dan is referring to the clips being shown in the opening credits for the show-within-the-show, just like the "SportsCenter" anchors did then, and still do now.

Coming up next Wednesday: "The Apology," still considered many fans' favorite episode.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Don't be so hard on the OJ reference - remember this episode was written only 4 years or so after the event, and 2 years after the trial. It would be like a show today referencing Hurricane Katrina, which would not be unusual.

Sorkin really loves to have his characters rattle off their resumes, doesn't he?

Indeed he does. One of my favorite West Wing scenes/speeches ever is:

I am John, Lord Marbury, Earl of Croy, Marquess of Needham and Dolby, Baronet of Brycey,
England's Ambassador to the United States, and a terrorist is a terrorist even if he
wears a green necktie and sings "Danny Boy." Yes, you can call me John.


Andrea said...

I really love this show... am currently cursing that I loaned my DVDs to a friend and I can't start the re-watch until next week.

katlogan said...

I am so excited that you are doing this, Alan. My husband gave me the DVDs for Christmas, and we have been savoring every episode. Now we have an excuse to go back through them again.

Unknown said...

Granted, I'm not an American, but I've alwats tought they workerd at the WTC - hence the bombscare episode(s?). Or am I mistaken?

Great review.

Mike said...

I had the exact same reaction as you. I haven't watched the shows since it was on TV (when I was 9-10 years old)and half-way through the pilot I was thinking that this show was just Studio 60 10 years earlier (as in not good). I didn't even remember the laugh track that appeared so infrequently that it was aukward when they didn't laugh.

Also, I noticed that the laugh track audience laughed at the most corny jokes on the show.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

I'm going to vote for Woody Allen-character there. I think Wallace Shawn-characters come off as more smug and condescending; although Woody's characters have a hint of that it's wrapped around insecurities and more self-deprecation.

Oh, Sports Night? One thing as a sports fan is that I couldn't buy into any sports news show doing top stories on Marathon runners or swimming (non-Olympics). It's America, the highlights in order depending on the season: NFL NCAA Football NBA NCAA basketball MLB NASCAR GOLF one highlight of NHL if it's the playoffs and one scrap from tennis or boxing.

Eyeball Wit said...

Funny how some rather unsuccessful shows like Sports Night jump start the careers of so many of their actors.

Two other short-lived shows even more notable in this regard:

Remember Day By Day? A late 80s sitcom about a yuppie couple who quit their jobs to open a day care center. It stars Linda Kelsey (Billie of Lou Grant fame) but also features Thora Birch, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Christopher Daniel Barnes (who would play Greg in the Brady Bunch movie). The big fish: the neurotic still-yuppie neighbor is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, delivering a very Elainesque performance.

And what about E/R? The other E/R, with Eliot Gould, an 80s sitcom based on a Steppenwolf stage play that lasted 22 episodes.

It features a future Oscar winner in the person of Mary McDonnell (the show's Felicity Huffman). And roughly a Godzillion dollars in future residuals in the persons of Jason Alexander and a very young George Clooney (!) as an ambulance driver.

It would be like finding Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux on the same bad minor league pitching staff.

Gould's character, FWIW, was named Howard Scheinfeld.

Any others?

Unknown said...

I'm so glad you're reviewing this, Alan. It's definitely one of my favorites, quirks and all.

It's hard for me to imagine that (iirc) Sorkin originally intended Dan to be a secondary character with Casey as the lead. Dan's definitely the heart of the show for me.

Otto Man said...

So, who does Malina sound more like in the Spike Lee scene: Woody Allen or Wallace Shawn?

Woody Allen. Much like when Jason Alexander was trying to find his voice with George -- the very early Seinfeld episodes, the pilot in particular, he sounds just like Allen.

BF said...

Re-watching, I noticed that Dave the director (the black guy with long dreads wrapped in a ponytail) was played by a bald white guy. I guess they replaced him because, as per Wayne's World rules, you never annunciate the last 2 seconds when counting down a live broadcast.

Robert Guilaumme: still awesome.

One small nit-picky note: in this episode, Casey notes that he's been out of his ex-wife's house for "about 4 to 6 months". Yet in the next episode, he's only been out 2 weeks and Dana is worried he doesn't have spoons yet.

Anonymous said...

I have been rewatching the first season these past few days, and I am struck by how much I enjoy Josh Charles' performance. It really puzzles me why he did not go on to the same success as Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman.

BTW, later episodes of the first season have establishing shots of a building in which the Sports Night studios are presumably located - not the WTC.

BF said...

The windows in the office are too wide to have plausibly taken place in the WTC. Someone with a better grasp of lower Manhattan architecture than I could probably take a look at the backdrop of buildings out the office windows and triangulate exactly where they are.

Karen said...

Funny to see Josh Charles billed above Peter Krause. He had a lot more credits under his belt at the time, but has pretty much disappeared since then, sad to say. (I always thought he should have guested on Everwood, since he looked like Gregory Smith's father--or at least his big brother.)

Man, I'd forgotten how bad the laugh track was.

I'd also forgotten that Joshua Malina appeared to think he was doing dinner theatre rather than a TV show.

But I don't care. I freakin' love this show. I've not seen the pilot since--geez, since it first ran. I watched it then on a whim and I was hooked. It's a genius piece of work.

Sorkin really hit all the notes on this one. Humor, drama, sentiment.

I freakin' love this show.

Matt said...

There's a later episode (the one where Dana gets stuck in the rain when getting the many varieties of food the staff has requested and winds up in a church) that suggests CSC is in Midtown on or near Sixth Avenue.

Two thoughts on the episode:

1. Yes, Malina plays his big monologue to the cheap seats, but it works for the character, who responds to nervousness (as I sometimes do) by babbling incoherently, and the reactions of Huffman and Lloyd to that are great--"Name three things!" (Though Huffman is a little off in her "sit down, I was rude" to Lloyd, which comes off a bit too patter-y.)

2. The music cues (as almost always with Walden) are great, managing to simultaneously work for the show and the show within the show, and not being a complete riff of the SportsCEnter theme.

Karen said...

Is that really a studio audience? Because if it is, it's one that sounds a hell of a lot like a laugh track. Makes me cringe throughout season 1 - thank God it went away in season 2. I must have started watching it when it was initially broadcast during season 2, because the laugh track came as a shock when I went back and watched it again in 2000 (on Comedy Central). I wish they'd removed it from the DVDs.

I too thought they were in the WTC at first, but later on the establishing shots seem to be in a building right near St. Bart's in midtown- and then later on at one point someone mentions that they're in Rockefeller Center, which makes showing St. Bart's all the time make no sense.

I'm that rare freak that likes Sports Night much, much more than The West Wing - I had to give up on The West Wing when I realized I'd be watching the characters do the same thing over and over season after season (namely Toby - I couldn't take it). The scene where Bartlett yells at God in Latin was one of the nails in the coffin for me - it just felt so contrived and look-at-me-I-can-yell-in-Latin. Studio-whatever-it-was I got through exactly one episode of and then gave up. In general, I like Sorkin, but it seems like of what I've seen of his work, only Sports Night (and, a bit, The American President) got to me and made me care.

Bianca said...

Regardless of how cheesy/sappy it can get at times, I love this show. I have to go dust off my DVD set now. Thanks for doing this.

Alan Sepinwall said...

One thing as a sports fan is that I couldn't buy into any sports news show doing top stories on Marathon runners or swimming (non-Olympics). It's America, the highlights in order depending on the season: NFL NCAA Football NBA NCAA basketball MLB NASCAR GOLF one highlight of NHL if it's the playoffs and one scrap from tennis or boxing.

Two things to keep in mind:

1)In this case, they're supposed to be cross-promotional for something CSC is airing in primetime. ESPN does this all the time with sports they only care about because they have a TV deal with them.

2)CSC is the third-place cable sports outfit in this universe, and so one of the ways they're trying to distinguish themselves is by showing stuff that ESPN and Fox wouldn't bother with.

BF said...

One thing that always bugged me about the series: the show would start with a taped intro (VTR) then 10-15 seconds of Dan & Casey previewing the show live, then go straight to a commercial break. Would a news-type show be able to get away with that nowadays?

J.J. said...

I have to disagree with the comment by Ostiose Vagrant about it being unbelievable for them to be talking about a sport like swimming or running on a show like that.

From where I stand, it's entirely believable that the last place sports network has to try and carve out a niche with the sports that the big boys mostly ignore covering (explaining why, in upcoming episodes, their programming covers things like mountain climbing and hunting). CSC isn't exactly ESPN or FOX Sports. They're like that channel, Versus, who can only afford the rights to hockey games and cycling or whatever.

BF said...

At the time, FOX Sports Cable wasn't that organized. #2 on the totem pole during the SportsNight era was CNN/SI.

mundiejc said...

Lets give Sorkin a break on the continuity. He was burning rocks all through writing this (which he did in between the 300 or so pages of script for the american president) holed up in a hotel room, watching SportsCenter from 5-10 AM.

And yeah, the pilot is a little ridiculous and doesn't make sense. Instead of being focused on one character, it became an ensemble cast (just like West Wing, which was originally supposed to be about Rob Lowe's character)

I loved this show when it was on tv, and hated that it was cancelled. And every 6 months or so, I go through the whole show.

Linda said...

I'd have to go back and listen to the commentaries, but isn't this the one where they explain that it was a MIX of a live audience AND a laugh track? They couldn't do the walk-and-talks and lots of the other fast-moving stuff in front of a live audience, so those were laugh tracked, but they did particular scenes in front of a live audience? Am I experiencing retroactive auditory hallucinations?

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Okay, with the cross promotional idea in consideration, I recant my statement. However, only as far as to say they would go with those stories. There's no debate on what you lead with. You can give some time to mountain climbing and other worthy items (I just think America's obsessed with what their own sports hence the animosity towards soccer), but they would never lead. Only my opinion but okay if ESPN cross promotion considerations make cards and dominoes and cheerleading into sports.

OH and OF COURSE, the recent Spelling Bee which got bumped onto primetime ABC a few years ago(?). Okay, I'm alright with it now. Also I understand that as a drama (dramedy) that different sports allow for more variety so the audience isn't bored by the show within a show. And that's fair. At peace.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Also, I never thought of CSC as on something like Versus which I guess they could be. I looked at them as trying to be legit while shooting for some big stories and interviews. They did get a big name Yankee signing and the sex-offender footballer(?). But yes, the first was a favor for Casey and the other they made major concessions so maybe they were on something niche like Versus.BTW, NHL needs to be on something legit. I'm sorry Versus fans if any are here or anywhere.

Eyeball Wit said...

[Josh Charles] had a lot more credits under his belt at the time, but has pretty much disappeared since then, sad to say.

Well, he did star in SWAT...
Remember his cringe-worthy performance on In Treatment? Now that they've outlawed waterboarding, I think he's doing, um, special interrogations for the CIA.

BF said...

Ostiose, the feature on Ntezaki doesn't lead. In the rundown meeting, Dana says the story would run right before the 2nd commercial break. In fact, the lead story that night was the Lakers/Sonics game IIRC.

Mike C said...

I'm very excited for these Sports Night reviews and discussions.

I think my favorite part of this episode is a total throwaway line/moment, when Casey gets on the phone with his son and says something like "Did you finish your homework?" As soon as the words start coming out of his mouth, he makes the funniest "what the heck and am I saying" face.

Karen said...

Just read a review last week of Josh Charles in a production of The Glass Menagerie (he's the Gentleman Caller). Don't remember where the production is... Also, I think he's in a new show in the fall, isn't he? (I could Google this if I weren't already doing five things online at once...)

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Oh, I was wrong then, BF. Right, a feature wouldn't lead.

I can't recall if another "alternative" sport came up in that "what do we lead with?" context. There was that ep where everyone suggested something different and Jeremy was insisting on this cricket record which got broken, like 20 wickets or 100(?). I know the others ignored him but even some of the "normal" suggestions by Dan or Dana I recall were just out of left field. I guess in general I had problems with it like that.

Nicole said...

I had never watched Sports Night when it originally aired and so this is all fresh to me. The first thing I noticed was how awkward the laugh track was. Or at least I thought it was a track - it just doesn't fit.

I think Krause and Charles set up the chemistry from the get go, but I have to say that I found Huffman's Dana pretty irritating on first impression. She was one of those typical neurotic career woman types who becomes an idiot regarding "love". I'm not sure if it's the portrayal, or my knowledge of Sorkin writing poorly for women (except CJ) that is influencing my irritation with her character so far.

Doug S said...

There was a great New Yorker article ten years ago on the creation of this show and the fight with ABC over the audience/laugh track. You have to register to read the whole thing, but here's a link to the

Otto Man said...

According to IMDB, Josh Charles is working on a movie with Justin Long, Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci. Intriguing.

Fizzgig said...

Nail on the head! I recently started the show for the first time and the pilot was kind of a turn off, with the laugh track and the cheese ball acting, but this show gets so much better and Sorkin, even in his developmental stages, is always worth a look.

Mr. Guilt said...

Glad to see a discussion of "Sports Night" ten years later. I'm definitely intrigued to see how it stood up, as well as to look at how the players have grown.

Regarding OJ/Katrina--Shows have a hard time walking the pop culture line. "West Wing" went out of its way to create a complete universe out of whole clothe--you almost never heard of a "real" leader mentioned. In contrast, given the density of its pop culture fetish, I doubt "30 Rock" will stand up in ten years.

Of course, that comparing literature to a copy of "People." Both are enjoyable...

Sorkin really loves to have his characters rattle off their resumes, doesn't he?

That's quite the Sorkin trait. Watch "A Few Good Men," and every character does this. Given the confines of a play/movie, it makes sense. Plus, as a literary device, it worked (each character does this as he/she takes a "final" stance on a matter). I think I'm popping in a DVD tonight...

The pilot, while good, and showed signs of greatness, definitely feels different than a lot of the rest of the show. The laugh track/audience is definitely a factor, but so to are other things. In general, Sorkin shows use music to wonderful effect, and I think "Sports Night" was the first example of this. The comedy/drama balance is found fairly quickly, as is the relationships between the characters (we'll touch on that in a few weeks, when Jeremy gets "the call").

We also get to start to see the Sorkin archetypes. I submit that Isaac and Leo are a similar character (and who I aspire to be as a leader).

Anonymous said...

OFF TOPIC: I thought the Obama NBC News Special/documentary was very interesting and gave a nice behind the scenes look into the White House (overtly censored in true reality tv style, I'm sure...but interesting nonetheless).

Can we get a Sepinwall review blog post?

filmcricket said...

So excited for this rewatch.

Yeah, this is a pilot that really shows it's a pilot (as opposed to "The West Wing" which was practically a fully-formed universe even in the pilot stage). Jeremy's the most obvious outlier, but even Natalie and Isaac are a bit over-the-top.

I just adore Dana in the pilot, though. Probably more so than at any other time in the series. Love the hair, love the outfit, love how no-nonsense and in charge she was.

I agree with Nicole that it's disappointing to see her go down the familiar road of "career woman who's a mess in her personal life" although I don't think that's just Sorkin (see "Cupid" and "Cheers" for two other egregious examples - and I also think Abbey Bartlet and Sydney Ellen Wade are great female Sorkin characters).

Can't wait for "The Hungry and the Hunted" which was the episode that made me think "Yeah, I'm sticking with this."

R.A. Porter said...

Like The West Wing, this pilot drops us into an existing universe with its relationships and rules in place, but differs in introducing Jeremy, presumably to help guide us. But Sorkin had never written a pilot before, so he didn't write Jeremy as an everyman. Combine that with Molina's weird performance (just in the pilot...I love his choices after this) and that goes a long way to explaining what feels off about this episode.

Fortunately, so much feels right. In particular, everyone did a good job of inhabiting their characters, from Krause on down to Robert Mailhouse's smarmy, sanctimonious JJ.

I was hooked when it premiered somewhere between the Spike Lee bit and Casey's elation when he did the opening.

polarama said...

Sports Night came into my life right around the time I thought I wanted to work at ESPN (I had just read the Dan/Keith book and was obsessed with SC). So I loved the behind the scenes aspect of the show, and I was a huge Josh Charles fan at the time.

I rewatched the show last year after the new DVD set came out, and I think it still holds up. As an Aaron Sorkin fan, it is a wee bit annoying to see recycling of lines and of story devices (the letter writing shows up in SN and TWW), but it's also kind of fun in that "hey it's that guy!" kind of way.

rhamilton said...

Malina makes up for his strained performance in the pilot (which I mostly likely, I guess I'm comfortable in the cheap seats) by being the absolute star of the commentary tracks. They're not great in general, with Sorkin and Schlamme doing their normal mutual appreciation thing and a lot of the cast members barely remembering ever doing the show, but Malina is always funny at his own or someone else's expense.

Zac F. said...

The laugh track is annoying as hell since it sounds like the audience listens to the dialogue, has to process it to get the funny stuff and then starts laughing when the next line is being said.

My least favorite part of the pilot is Dana's pseudo-sign language to Jeremy when she repeats "Name 3 things the Knicks have to do to contend" since she comes off as a person who slows down her speech and adds gestures to make sure the other person understands what they're saying as if they're mentally slow or hearing impaired.

The Apology is a great episode, but my favorite is later in season 1. It's an episode with a number in the title. :)

Anonymous said...

In one of the episodes Dan refers to the show as coming to you from Rockefeller Center (he doesn't say which particular building, though).

The New Yorker essay "Laugh Riot" (about the Sports Night laugh track, the studio audience, and the filming of the first few episodes) is by Tad Friend. It is anthologized in his book, Lost in Mongolia. For true fans, it is definitely worth a look.

Anonymous said...

I understand the frustration at Sorkin tending to write female characters that are great career women, but have issues in their personal lives, as it fits a certain stereotype. However, does he have many male characters that don't exhibit the same characteristics?. Isaac is really the only one I can think of.

Theresa said...

Dan and Casey's debate about cognac

Don't you mean Kim and Elliot? As I recall the debate was between the two of them and Dan and Casey just walked in on it.

The pilot was a bit clunky, but it showed signs of the greatness to come, and for that I love it. I think The Apology was the first episode I ever watched, but my dad watched it from the beginning and both of us have watched the series many times since it originally came out in 2002. Ah...I love this show.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to watch old Sorkin after Studio 60.
I loved SportsNight and West Wing when they were originally on - and WW for years later. But now, after the horror of S60, the flaws are much more apparent. They're countered by things that are really, really good and there are far more pluses than minuses. But I can't help but see the minuses now.

Mark B said...

Dana's pseudo-sign language to Jeremy ... she comes off as a person who slows down her speech and adds gestures to make sure the other person understands what they're saying as if they're mentally slow or hearing impaired.

It comes across worse in retrospect, given that we later learn Jeremy's sister is deaf.

Eyeball Wit said...

Remember Alan's insightful interview with Diablo Cody? And the question over whether she (or David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin) really just put the same words in the mouths of different characters?

I was just so struck by the similarities in tone between Sports Night and the West Wing (and Studio 60) I could hear Sam or Toby or CJ or Donna saying half of these lines (especially since half of it has nothing to do with doing a sports highlight show.)

And so much of Sports Night's basic structure (the bickering, buddies, the grumpy boss with a heart of gold, the hyper capable assistant, the hesistant office romance), and the situations were recycled for Sorkin's future shows.

Still, with Sports Night, as with Studio 60, I still can't decide if I'm watching the best show on television or the worst. Or both at the same time.

I never had that problem with the Sorkin-led seasons of West Wing.

Any idea of what he's up to?

Eldo Owens said...

I'm pretty sure that in a season two episode, Dan finishes off a show intro by saying that Sports Night is coming to you live from 30 Rock so stick around and the answer may come to us in the future.

jcpbmg said...

The CSC offices were set in midtown (specifically in the 50s around 6th or 7th- they said it in one of the DVD commentaries). I always assumed they just cut to downtown because it was cheap stock footage (and knowing Sorkin every episode probably ran over budget).

However I always found those cut-away intro shots to be a complete waste of time and would have been better used on dialogue/plot

Also I too am quite excited for the re-watch and subsequent posting

Matt said...

Sorkin has a largely finished script about The Chicago Seven, which Spielberg was circling a while back, and was working on a project about the founding of Facebook. He's also allegedly working on a translation of "The Cherry Orchard" and the book for "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots: The Musical" for the stage. He's also been rumored to be attached to a script for a film version of Sondheim's "Follies" and to be developing a show about behind the scenes of a TV News show a la Olbermann.

Finally, he has a brief section he contributed to Kristin Chenoweth's memoir in which he talks about their rocky romance.

amitytv said...

I never saw the show when it originally aired. As a first time watcher, I thought this was terrible. Absolutely terrible. It was like watching Studio 60 all over again with the exact same issues. I know many of you were fans based on the first viewing, but imagine if you had seen Studio 60 first and then began watching this? Wouldn't you see the similarities b/n the two and recognize the same characters, conversation, conflicts, and ultimately, the same long winded principled lectures that came at the end of each show from one of the main characters? Ugh.

I have heard so many good things about this show from the bloggers and I was looking forward to going through the episodes with you guys.
I respect you, Alan, so I'll force myself to watch the last half of the second episode, (I had to turn it off when Dan was told to apologize for his membership in the drug club and we see his principled frustration at being forced to apologize for something he felt so strongly about, puh-lease....) in the hopes that maybe I'll get a glimpse of the brilliance, but I am NOT going to be able to take it if there is a self-righteous "This issue is the most important thing ever and I'm right!" monologue in EVERY episode. A Sorkin trademark, if there ever was one.
I didn't laugh once, and I came expecting to. What a disappointment.

Karen said...

Interesting, amitytv. I'm not sure how I'd feel about Sports Night if I'd come to it after WW and S60. I loved loved loved Sports Night, loved the first two years of WW (two? however many seasons before 9/11--I just couldn't watch it after that), and hated S60 with a powerful hatred. It's true that one can see the seeds of the pompous, narcissistic self-righteous S60 characters in Dan and Casey and Jeremy--but I guess they were only seeds, and thus more palatable at the time.

In retrospect, I get how they might appear obnoxious but, in a world untouched by late Sorkin, you've got to believe they were genius!

Brandy said...

Amitytv- get through the second ep. It is very very very possible that you won't love it if you found Studio 60 to be too preachy. But the apology isn't what you think it's going to be. And it is a fan favorite episode.

Also, this is 90s tv. In history we were taught to classify decades not as much by the actual years but by the spirit of the time. I think Sorkin's Sorkiness worked better in the less jaded pre 9-11 90s. I think a lot of the elements that didn't work on Studio 60 were ones that worked on West Wing or Sports Night.

Part of why the it works more for me in those earlier shows is because it fits in more seamlessly. There really is a reason for Josh Lyman to get all upset over an issue. It's his job! For Dan and Casey, less so... but getting preachy about an issue related to sports, IE bad behavior of sports stars as role models... which is at least an issue that a sports caster and single dad would care about.

Besides I rarely found Studio 60 funny. This one? It has it's moments. It may not be for everybody but it's worth a couple of eps, I think.

I like the corniness that is the end of the first episode, but this show owned me at The Apology.

Eyeball Wit said...

It's (ostensibly) a comedy that's not funny.
As opposed to West Wing which was a drama that was funny now and again.
But it's nice to see Sabrina Lloyd.

The Irish Cowgirl said...

This is and shall always be one of my favorite series of all time. But I agree, there were elements of the pilot that were, let's say, cringe-inducing. And while Jeremy's intro scene was one of those, I thought it nicely set up one of the other main storylines: the Natalie/Jeremy relationship. Here was this HOPELESSLY dorky young man, rattling off statistics about weather patterns and and his pathetic high school experience and, above all, sports. It immediately set the framework for why Natalie would fall so hard, so fast. Because despite, or even because of, Jeremy's awkwardness, we fall for him too.

Zack Smith said...

"Ntozake Nelson" reminded me that Sorkin loves creating one-off or throwaway characters with allterative names. This drove me crazy in THE WEST WING, but it seems to carry through most of his work.

Sometimes, it takes the form of supporting characters with alliterative names (A FEW GOOD MEN has "Dawson and Downey," while THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT has "McSorely, McClusky and Shane," the "Motown Three." And for the latter, it's amusing to think of Detroit having such power over the president these days...)

The resume thing also bothers me; it's a shorthand for saying the characters are well-qualified and deserve respect, but I'm also of the mind that going to a good school doesn't necessarily make you an expert (see also: Bernard, Andy, Cornell alumn).

I didn't watch this until "The Apology," and there are bits where the format is a mite strained -- good job calling out Malina's scene. It's the only one that really plays like a more traditional sitcom. But the tone soon fell into place.

Rereading David Wild's excellent THE SHOWRUNNERS, about the 1998-1999 season, and while he covers the last season of NEWSRADIO and CUPID 1.0, he forgets this one altogether...the only big miss in an otherwise great book.

Looking forward to more of these reviews!

Alyson said...

Jeremy's story arc makes a lot more sense once we get to The Hungry and the Hunted, which is I think episode 5 or 6?

I like the corniness that is the end of the first episode, but this show owned me at The Apology.
Agreed, Brandy, 100%. I liked Josh Charles a lot coming into the show, but Dan's monologue that ends the episode is one of the truly great moments on the show. And really, that's what this show is about more than anything - the moments. Trying to see them as part of a larger whole (the way it might work with The West Wing, for example) and it does crumple under the weight of expectations, particularly in hindsight. But view each of those little bits of brilliance independently, and they hold up very well.

LA said...

I've never seen a single minute of West Wing or anything else by Sorkin, so I'm coming into this with totally fresh eyes.

Instead of watching the first episode, I watched the entire first disc (8 episodes, and really enjoyed them) last night so I could be prepared for Alan's summer rewind.

My initial impression was that this show bridged the gap between "old" sitcoms and, say, something like Scrubs. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Scrubs, what with the walk-and-talk style, the very good character development especially for the 22-minute format, and the comedic episodes taking very dramatic turns.

Interesting to read the debate here as to who the lead is/should be. I'm a big fan of Peter Krause, so to me, he's the obvious choice. I think he's better looking and has more charisma which, ten years ago, is how these decisions were made (especially based on looks), but I can see that my opinion is subjective.

There was a moment in this episode where they showed Felicity Huffman in profile holding glasses to her face where I thought to myself, "she looks exactly like Kate Walsh." Anyone else see it?

Looking forward to the rest of the summer.

Marsha said...

As some of you know, I married my husband because he was a Sports Night fan, so I'm thrilled to have you doing this re-review, Alan.

I really liked the pilot then, and I like it now. The only thing that truly grates on me is the overdone Jeremy personality. "AND I THINK THAT YOU ARE..." is a little much, to be sure. But he got it under control so quickly, and Malina's performance is so good that it even transcends the S2 choreoanimator stuff.

Lord, I love this show, and I am looking forward to revisiting it with y'all.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty certain the show was set in the WTC. I'm sure that some time later in the show they mention what floor they're working on, and it's something stupidly high.

Add to that the bomb scare and the many establishing shots, and it seems pretty concrete to me.

Linda said...

Whenever I watch the pilot, I think to myself, "Woooow, there's some clunk in here. I'm glad I know how much better it gets." To me, the pilot is flashes of greatness and a lot of problems. But within the next episode or two, it becomes awesome (for me), and by the time you get to "Mary Pat Shelby," which is only a couple more episodes after that, I think it's at the level of greatness.

wendoggy said...

Malina's performance isn't over-broad; he's playing to the studio audience. And they love him for it.Yeah,he seems like he wondered in from the set of Murphy Brown, but that's what works with an audience.
It only seems jarring in retrospect;at the time, he would have been the most familiar kind of character.
When the audience isn't there, Malina modulates his performance accordingly. And he's great on the show--

The thing about Studio 60 is that it's oddly joyless. Alan, I don't remember if it was in an interview you conducted, but David Chase once mentioned that for a show to work, the main characters had to be good at their jobs.And both SportsNight and West Wing are driven by that kind of confidence.
It puts the snap in the repartee.
On Studio 60, the characters aren't doing their jobs well. And it's not
to serve a moment of triumphant comeback; they just seem miserable.
And as a result, the actors are damped down. The wisecracks come off as embittered arrogance. The most glaring example is Bradley Whitford. In trying to not evoke Josh , they weighed him down so heavily that in one scene where he's shown dancing,it's jarring to see him full of life. It's like something out of Awakenings.

wendoggy said...

...make that "wandered in". I'm sorry. My typing skills are so sub-par, it's like I'm trying to tap things out with a chicken held up to the keyboard.

Nicole said...

I'm in the same boat as amitytv in that the first Sorkin I saw was Studio 60, and so the pilot was filtered through that foggy lens.
I have watched additional episodes, and the show does improve considerably. Robert Guillaume is superb and the Josh Charles/Peter Krause friendship is definitely the highlight for me so far. Dana still grates though.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Josh. Charles. Oh my god, why isn't this man a major star?

eyeball Wit said...

In Treatment show runner Warren Leight made that "good at their jobs" point in his interview with Alan talking about Paul, but it doesn't sound like an original.

FWIW, for the first couple of seasons on the West Wing, the Barlet staff was constantly bungling things (from Sam's hooker problem to Toby's leadership breakfast to too many Josh blunders to name.) Sorkin was smart enough to have them learn from their mistakes, though.

I really find Studio 60 and Sports Night of a piece--strangely joyless, slightly weird shows, with sparkling writing, good acting, and one very cute actress (Amanda Peet and Sabrina Lloyd.)

Mapeel said...

It's interesting to remember that when this show aired, the fans had no way to connect with one another. What attracted a lot of us was that it was palpably different from what else was on the landscape, but that observation had to stay within each living room.

Malina was painful to watch now, but I am finding him very appealing on In Plain Sight.

wendoggy said...

But the West Wing stumbles served as a vehicle for allowing the other characters to show support,loyalty and ability. And I don't think you can say that any of them had a loss of confidence that lasted more than part of an episode. SportsNight and West Wing were about esprit de corps. Studio 60 wasn't a team--it was two guys in pursuit of women with whom they had no chemistry.

Hannah Lee said...

Alan, I'm SO happy you're doing a rewind/rewatch of Sports Night. I loved this show when it was first on, and was so frustrated when it was mistreated by ABC (the laugh track was just one example).

The writing was great (even with the frequent Sorkin soapbox moments), the performances were top notch (if you have doubts about Malina in the pilot, stick around) and its look/pace/comedy-drama mix was unlike anything else on TV.

On the "who's supposed to be the lead?" question, an old cast interview mentioned Sorkin initially thought of the Dan/Casey dynamic as that of a man and his fine hound. Krause supposedly asked "So,which one of us is the hound?" Turned out each of them was, at different times. I think the show struck a balance between the two, and among the other main characters, too. Between the two, I think Dan was the heart of the show, but would not have had his depth without Casey. For me, their relationship and the affection and interaction between ALL the characters, was what made the show for me. That and the characters' love of language (or obsession about it) I wanted to work with these people, and spend time with them and that was a big part of the show's appeal.

For a pilot, this episode did a good job hinting at those relationships, setting the stage for what was to come.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this, Alan. It's great to revisit this show. Yes, it does get preachy at times, but not as much as Sorkin might have liked, which is why I prefer the half-hour format for him. Reviewing several early episodes I was reminded again of how much Sorkin could accomplish in thirty minutes.

At the end of the pilot, despite the clunkiness in places, there were relationships that intrigued me --particularly Casey and Dan, but also Dana and Isaac. There's more to these people than your basic sitcom characters. There's history here, and so much more to learn, layers and layers.

I especially love the scene where Casey and Dan are arguing. Once they're on their feet there is a physicality, a knowingness that tells you these guys go way back. This partnership is more than just two guys who share an anchor desk.

I remember seeing this episode and the ones to follow and being impressed with Robert Guillaume's Isaac. I wanted more of that character.

I never cared much for The West Wing or Studio60. I didn't like hearing Casey's -- or Dana's or Danny's -- words come out of the mouths of other characters. I know it became a parlor game to some fans -- noting the parallels, comparing the characters -- but to me it just seemed cute and distracting.

Alan in San Antonio said...

I dig out the "Sports Night" discs at least once a year and lose many hours of sleep over 3 or 4 nights to watch the entire series.

My love of this show even made it hard for me to suspend disbelief with "Desperate Housewives." I just couldn't buy into a Wisteria Lane where Dana and Sally were ever friends.

Will each ep get reviewed? Will I get to watch the remainder at the glacial pace of one ep a day? That'd be weird.

jcpbmg said...

Why do guys find Natalie (more so the character than the actress) so attractive. I actually found this distracting during the heavy Natalie/Jeremy episodes as to me she always should have been playing more of the "cool but nerdy" girl as opposed to the "super hot" girl who everyone fauns over.

(Now that I think about it, I feel the same way about CJ, were all those comments from Toby, Sam and Josh, and even Bruno, about her body really necessary)

I know this is all part of the more macro "Sorkin women issues (aka Christen Chenoweth/Maureen Dowd") but did anyone else feel this way about Natalie?

R.A. Porter said...

@jcpbmg, are you
a) asking if as a representative male I find Sabrina Lloyd attractive
b) implying that Kristin Chenowith might not be ├╝berhot?

Because my response is
a) Oh, HELL yes.
b) Oh, HELL yes she is.

Meghan said...

You hit on everything I feel about the show VS West Wing (the stakes being higher) and how Sorkin still hadn't found his balance between comedy and drama that he wrote so beautifully in the first four seasons of West Wing.

I agree that the pilot is the low point. The great thing about this show is its ability to get stronger with every episode. Personally I feel episode 16 "Sally" is the turning point of the whole series, where it really hits a stride, so I look forward to your review of that. And also to further posts where you discuss the women of the show, and how somewhat ahead of its time they were.

Savvy Veteran said...

I'll throw my hat into the "the audience laughter was very annoying" ring as well. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a show not in the traditional multi-camera sitcom format where the laugh-track works (and the majority of the time it's grating and superfluous in those situations as well), and this was no difference. I was reminded of the otherwise absolutely delightful and terrific BBC show "I'm Alan Partridge," which either has the world's most sophisticated studio audience (laughing at all of the "right" things that I can't imagine an SA at large would pick up on), or the world's most unnecessary laughter track. This pilot was different though, as the audience usually had no time to laugh during scenes containing actually funny dialogue, because it was delivered sequentially at rapid-fire speed, so instead had to laugh at the comparably unfunny jokes which were followed by a pause. (Wow, that was probably too much analysis for this one particular aspect of an otherwise good show. I'll move on now.)

Pretty good show so far though (I've never seen it). I felt like the heartfelt speech about the bleak state of sportscasting was a little corny and ridiculous, but I'm a big fan of the way Sorkin writes. I really like the rapport the characters have with each other already, and I look forward to it getting even better!

simbo said...

In the "hmm, never thoght about this before" department... Sports Night is probably one of the rare examples of a half-hour drama... it isn't really a sitcom (the laugh track particularly points this out, but it's not written for laugh-out-loud moments as often as it's written for "wry smile" moments).

The only other half-hour drama I can think of on American TV in recent years is "In Treatment"... is there a reason why you don't see many of these?

I suppose it might be that the TV schedules really require a block of an hour that audience's are not expected to switch over between... so therefore you really need a good matching pair of dramas, which is theoretically harder than a matching pair of comedies.

eyeball wit said...

@jcpbmg, are you
a) asking if as a representative male I find Sabrina Lloyd attractive
b) implying that Kristin Chenowith might not be ├╝berhot?

a) Very much so, although a little more nerdchick and a little less perk would have been ok. However, in real life, a dweeb like Jeremy wouldn't share anything but a wastebasket with a hottie like Natalie.
b) Not so much.
c) Donna Moss? Not so much either. While she doesn't grate the way KC does, she leaves some important button unpushed. YMMV.
d) Amy Gardner? Oh yes.

Were all those comments from Toby, Sam and Josh, and even Bruno, about [CJ's]body really necessary?

They were, because otherwise they could have been talking to each other.

Susan said...

I like Malina in the pilot, but he does get so much better as he grows into the character. I love his deer-hunting speech later this season, and his whole relationship with Natalie.

And there are whole websites devoted to comparing the similarities in the Sorkinverse, from the use of the same actors and character names, to whole lines of dialogue ("the only thing you had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day") and plots (father having a decades-long affair), etc.

Thanks for recapping this, Alan. A great summer project - I can't wait to delve into my DVDs again.

jcpbmg said...

RA and eyeball wit- Interesting you both (along with most other people) feel Natalie/Lloyd was deserving of the "hot" moniker- whereas I still think she should have just been the "quirky/cool" character.

Sorkin said a few years ago that he wrote all women to be Chenoweth/Marueen Dowd stand ins, which I think greatly contributes to him writing all female characters to be "hot" rather than just cool (the way I feel CJ could have been)

Hannah Lee said...

Two things I forgot to mention in my previous post:

1) According to the DVD's, the first voice you hear on Sports Night is none other than Aaron Sorkin's:

"Studio A, this is Master Control. You're up on Router 7. Have a good show."

2) Dana's weird voice when pressing Jeremy never bothered me too much, since that whole scene was odd. The Dana thing that bugged me in the pilot is that when she's in Casey & Dan's office giving Casey a "pep talk", she grabs a handful of unwrapped candy (jelly beans, maybe?), eats some and clutches the rest in her hand while they argue. When she gets up to leave, she dramatically plops that candy back into the candy dish for some other person to eat. Uh, thanks for sharing, Dana.

Anonymous said...

I love this show so much it's probably slightly unhealthy. The pilot does have its flaws - it's uneven, and several people haven't yet settled into their roles (plus Casey's hair! And Dana's hair, for that matter, and her incredibly harsh lipstick. And that hideous cardigan Natalie's wearing. And not-Dave and, in the background, not-Natalie as well) - but, all in all, it lays the groundwork for what is to come, and we do see, from the very beginning, how much of a family these people are. A weird, dysfunctional family, to be sure, but, hey, what family isn't?

What stands out for me, and always has, is the character of Dan Rydell: his fierce and unswerving loyalty, and the depth of his caring. Dan and Isaac, I have always thought, are the heart and soul of the show. Without them, Sports Night would still be a good show, but it wouldn't have half its magic, and I don't think it would have endured as it has.

Bunting said...

@M.A. Peel: TWoP covered it, by request. It didn't do much business for us -- primarily because they kept dicking around with the timeslot -- but it wasn't after the fact or anything; we covered it starting in S2. The internet did exist and people did discuss it there.

"Josh. Charles. Oh my god, why isn't this man a major star?"

Rumor has it he's "difficult." Pulled some "do you know who I am" shit above his pay grade; didn't stay *quite* good-looking enough to counteract that.

Ellie said...

"Rumor has it he's 'difficult.'"

That's surprising and sad. I just loved him (JC) and the character of Danny on SN. I always assumed his lack of greater success was due to the usual whims of Hollywood. Too bad if he's f'd it up himself because he's really a good actor.

I'm currently watching S1 of In Treatment and cringing at what an a-hole his character is on that show. Maybe that character is closer to real life. Heh.