Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sports Night rewind: "The Quality of Mercy at 29K" & "Shoe Money Tonight"

Okay, in between the end of my vacation and the start of my Comic-Con/press tour wanderings, I'm going to crank out one more "Sports Night" rewind, this time looking back on "The Quality of Mercy at 29K" (heretofore referred to as "29K") and "Shoe Money Tonight" (heretofore referred to as "Shoe"). Spoilers for both coming up just as soon as I go to Dickensian London...
"I didn't know we could do that. Did you know we could do that?" -Dana

"But mostly, I want you to trust me -- just once -- when I tell you that you have three sevens, and I have a straight." -Jeremy
Unlike some of the past episodes I've doubled up on, "29K" and "Shoe" don't have an awful lot in common, either thematically or in terms of continuing plotlines. The former is Aaron Sorkin, cockeyed optimist that he so often is, musing on how much human beings can accomplish with the right amount of imagination and hard work, the latter a comic romp in which jealousy rears its ugly head for both our actual couple (Jeremy/Natalie) and our inevitable couple (Dana/Casey).

The one clear thing they have in common (other than featuring the Sports Night staff stuck at the office to do a telecast in the middle of the night) is that they're each illustrative of one of Sorkin's recurring flaws: for "29K," his tendency to sometimes overargue a point; for "Shoe," his tendency to get a little patronizing when it comes to the opposite sex.

Now, these are both very good episodes, and they're maybe the first two where I feel my retroactive opinion is being significantly colored by my viewing of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Because I've seen how awkward those tendencies can feel on a Sorkin show that isn't working, I get uncomfortable noticing them even in the midst of a good Sorkin show.

"Shoe" is more problematic in this respect. Yes, Sorkin lays on the "Look at what we can do" stuff a little too thick in "29K," just to make sure we get the point, but it's still a sunny episode, and features one of my favorite Felicity Huffman performances in depicting Dana's over-the-moon reaction to seeing "The Lion King" on Broadway.

"Shoe," on the other hand, very much fits into the Sorkin pattern of creating female characters who are mostly very strong and great at their chosen professions, but who, from time to time, need the men in their lives to tell them what to do and explain how the world really works. This pattern was most evident in Harriet Hayes on "Studio 60," but even vintage Sorkin-era "West Wing" had stray moments like this.

Now, as to the Jeremy/Natalie poker confrontation at the end of this episode, it's hard to look at it without thinking of what commenter Hal Incandenza wrote in our discussion of "The Apology":
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.
Natalie is smart, and she's tough, and she's likable, but of course Jeremy knows what the cards are and she doesn't, and the only real trump she has over the guy is her sex appeal. In this relationship, Jeremy's smart and kind and thoughtful, and she... looks really hot in one of his white shirts. In my review of "Thespis," I wrote that Natalie is like every nerd's dream girl, and the way the card game only enhances that idea. What geek wouldn't want a hot woman who gets turned on by his command of trivia, and who also acknowledges that, in the end, she's clearly his intellectual inferior?

And the thing is, I think Sorkin could have told the exact same Jeremy/Natalie story and accomplished the same character arcs for both, even if he had flipped things at the end and shown that Jeremy's count of the cards wasn't as good as he thought. If Jeremy gives the speech about how Natalie needs to recognize that he's not some d-bag like every other guy she's dated, I think she still forgives him for the Judy-Rootie-Tootie thing even if it turns out that she had four 7's instead of three to beat his straight. I think it's a little more unexpected(*), and it makes Natalie seem stronger and more interesting for recognizing that Jeremy is right about the larger point even though he was mistaken on the specific point.

(*) Admittedly, it's more unexpected in hindsight, when we're aware of the pattern of this relationship, and of Sorkin's handling of female characters in general.

And I don't want to bag too much on Sorkin's feminist credentials given the conflict between Dana and West Coast Update producer Sally Sasser (played by Brenda Strong, who would get more work, I believe, if she wasn't taller than most of her insecure potential male co-stars). Yes, there's some amount of jealousy in how Dana reacts to Sally -- not about Sally's looks, but about how Casey drools over them -- but mostly, it's clear that what bothers Dana is that Sally is the kind of professional that Dana never wanted to be. Dana is beautiful, and she's feminine in a job where it would be very easy for her to play the tomboy, but she has never traded on her sexuality in the way that Sally does. She got to where she is because she's talented and driven, and it's those qualities that Casey is drawn to as much as he is to her appearance. And it's that, I think, that really bugs Dana about Sally: if Dana defines herself largely by how good she is at her job, and if Casey can leer over someone who isn't 1/10th as good at it as Dana, just because Sally has long legs and a big chest, does that mean Casey really doesn't care all that much about Dana the professional? And does that, in turn, mean that Dana herself has spent all these years mooning over the wrong guy?

Of course, in the end, Dana realizes that the way into Casey's heart is through his favorite camera angles and a lack of puns (it's an argument where she's right about everything and he's wrong) and everything works out in the end.

Some other thoughts on both episodes:

• At the time "29K" aired, the episode caught some grief from critics who thought Sorkin was being forced to plug another Disney product (or that he was choosing to do it to suck up to his new corporate overlords). He would later say that he just really enjoyed seeing "The Lion King" and wanted to try to convey that experience to the audience, and didn't even think about the synergy thing. As this was 10 years before product integration became the be-all, end-all of network TV, I'm inclined to believe him.

West Coast Update is kind of a lame name for the 2 a.m. show, unless its full title was supposed to be Sports Night: West Coast Update. Also, the idea that Dan and Casey would be the only anchors available to fill in for the guys stuck in Pittsburgh doesn't track with later episodes, which will reveal a relatively deep bench at CSC.

• And speaking of that, without getting too spoiler-y for the newbies watching these episodes only as I write about them, Dan's on-air plea for food during "29K" seems like a big no-no, given the trouble a fill-in anchor named Steve Sarris will get into for a similar stunt in a season two episode. (Try to be vague if you want to compare the two situations, please.)

• In what circumstance is "The Weight" by The Band not the perfect song to end any episode of anything, as it does "29K"?

• "Shoe Money Tonight" was the first episode of the series not directed by Tommy Schlamme, and it shows, particularly in the climactic poker scene, where director Dennie Gordon eschews Schlamme's trademark fluid camerawork for a lot of quick cuts and extreme close-ups. Very jarring compared to the way the show usually looks.

Coming up next: Another two-parter of sorts with "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" and "Smoky," both of which feature Isaac going up against CSC chairman Luther Sachs.

Don't know when that will be written, given my Comic-Con/press tour commitments. I could slip it in at some point during those two weeks, or I may not get to it until mid-August. But I promise I've got at least a few more of these reviews in me before Labor Day.

What did everybody else think?


Linda said...

I hadn't ever thought too much about the Jeremy/Natalie right/wrong thing until it was mentioned in that comment, but it really is truer than I wish it were.

It's too similar to Dana, in that Natalie is great at her job, but she constantly has to be schooled by Jeremy in just about every other way, and their relationship very much has an undertone, to me, of her being wonderfully crazy and wacky and beautiful and hot and magical, but kind of irrational about anything personal, which is way, way too common in Sorkin women. Pretty much the only woman on the show who is rational about her personal life is Sally, and that's a sad commentary.

Having said that, I like lots of things about these two episodes, and if Jeremy's speech had a different context (as Alan said), then the business where he defends his right to play tennis with friends is a darn good speech.

Alan didn't mention all of Dana's short jokes about Isaac, but for some reason, they make me laugh hysterically, especially when she addresses him as "li'l buddy."

Jen said...

I was much younger and more naive when I first watched the series, but rewatching now I'm picking up on a lot of the chauvinistic things I missed in the Jeremy/Natalie relationship.

Having forgotten how "Shoe Money" played out, I was half expecting Natalie to come out on top because to me that seemed like it would be the more compelling story. We've already seen Jeremy prove his worth/smarts, so why is it necessary for the story that he do it again, especially in a way that so diminishes the worth of Natalie, who we're repeatedly told is smart and great and wonderful, but rarely gets the chance to demonstrate it (I'm a few eps ahead of the recaps, so I know not to totally write Sorkin off). And to have him do it in such a public way, is pretty hurtful. I can see how it could be viewed as the Nerdy Guy getting his chance to prove his worth to every cute girl who ever turned him down for a more popular guy, but it seems like a very discordant note for a show that's usually very good at staying on pitch.

TC said...

As someone who gave "Studio 60" every chance in the world (I think I actually watched every ep.), I can confidently say that it doesn't color my viewing of Sports Night (nor TWW) one iota.

It was just so forgettable...I've, well, forgotten most of it. I guess I just chalk it up to a big swing and miss by Sorkin and nothing more.

ghoti said...

That is a great picture of Sabrina Lloyd.

I have watched 63 episodes of Ed in the last two weeks and I am now in the middle of the Frankie era. I can tell you that I still like her a lot more than Carol Vessey!

L. Sacks said...

How about revisiting the "Jeremy always wins against Natalie" thing after "Small Town". Or "A Girl Named Pixley". Or the whole plot thread between them that (as I recall) kicks off with "The Sword of Orion". Just off the top of my head.

Rick said...

@ghoti: You're coming up fat on the end of Ed Season 3. Take my advice: STOP THERE. Season 4 has a handful of good bits, but the whole of it forever tarnishes the three seasons that came before it.

I always came down on the side of Lion King synergy. ABC was going through a BIG Disney-ification at the time.

Shoe Money Tonight is one of my least favorite episodes of the series, though it is the only episode I quote on a regular basis.

Mike said...

the Sorkin pattern of creating female characters who are mostly very strong and great at their chosen professions, but who, from time to time, need the men in their lives to tell them what to do and explain how the world really works

To be fair, his men also need the women to do the same from time to time.

I'll also go ahead and disagree about Jeremy winning every argument, but giving examples would be talking about "future" episodes, so I won't.

Rinaldo said...

"I always came down on the side of Lion King synergy."

I understand that some do, but my reaction is... if you wanted to do a story about Dana expecting a negligible bit of children's theater and being unexpectedly blown away by theatrical magic, what title SHOULD have been used? That musical is really the perfect example of being blindsided by what the theater can do (clearly an essential part of the combined plots, not an afterthought), so it seems utterly natural to me to use it in this context.

Anonymous said...

Ahh Sabrina Lloyd.....not to hijack this post or anything but anyone else totally miss, or least miss the premise of Sliders? Damn that show could have been good....

Isaac Lin said...

The poker game didn't bother me that much, other than feeling a bit clichéd (pretty gal is clueless about poker). To me, the key point is that people don't just fall into trustworthy/not trustworthy categories as real world scenarios make this more complicated. Without the final denouement, I don't think Jeremy would have adequately demonstrated that Natalie could still trust him to have her best interests at heart, even after his misstep.

On the other hand, Dana's obliviousness to the need to buy tickets to The Lion King in advance always rings false to me (though Isaac's anticipation of this is a great moment).

(And yes, I get a vicarious thrill at sharing a first name with such a memorable character.)

Isaac Lin said...

Oh, and the difference between Dan asking for food and Steve's situation is that Dan was fooling around for laughs, while Steve was definitely on the wrong side of the "too much information" line.

J.J. said...

It may be just me, but I think it makes the series more interesting for Jeremy to somehow have his stuff together so well. Because he's the character who, off the bat, most seemed like he'd have no idea how to maintain a personal life. Plug Jeremy into almost any other TV show, and I'm sure he's totally clueless with women and his whole reason for being onscreen would be for the audience to laugh at him for being so socially inept.

(Of course, without spoiling things for newer viewers, he and Natalie end up trading roles occasionally in the future. So, while it may play like he's that guy who is always right, it turns out she does get her chances to tell him what's what.)

Also, you kind of don't notice it that much at times (maybe because of how they're constantly puffing themselves up), but it's my recollection that Dan and Casey spend much of the series seeming incredibly insecure and clueless about personal relationships with women. I think Jeremy gets to end up winning his arguments much of the time because if he didn't, then way too much of the show would be about the 3 main male characters (not including Isaac in this, since he strangely floats above most of the show) being baffled and slapped down by women in their life.

rhamilton said...

I think it kind of got left out how funny "Shoe Money" is. The banter is great, and I actually think the direction in the game works for it better than Schlamme might have done it. To me, this is the one truly funny episode of the show, well ahead of "Thespis."

What gets me about the end, besides Jeremy being a little over-dramatically right, is that if he knows Nathalie has 3 of a kind, then he can't possibly discount a Full House by knowing the location of 7 sevens. She'd only need 2 of them.

trishag said...

After watching Joshua Malina in West Wing (towards the end, when he became so darned unpleasant), I have a hard time not seeing him as abrasive and condescending now in Sports Night. He's often both of those things to Dana, who is his boss.

Does anyone else get that mean Jeremy vibe?

Anonymous said...


Sorry to be a grammar geek, but "heretofore" should be "hereinafter" or "hereafter" (or just put the term in parentheses and we'll all know what you mean).

filmcricket said...

@trishag: I definitely think Jeremy's way too comfortable way too quickly, yes. He's a smart guy and good at his job, but that doesn't excuse the sarcasm he frequently directs at Dana. However, I do like Dana's strategy of treating him like a little kid in response.

I really, really don't like "29K"; it's one of the eps that I usually skip. It's heavy-handed, it's preachy, and Dan getting over his white liberal guilt by sharing a sandwich with a homeless guy is beyond ridiculous.

"Shoe Money," on the other hand, I love, despite the Jeremy/Natalie resolution. Partly because Sorkin's by no means the only offender when it comes to the tough professional/emotional basketcase cliché (and I think Dana's a much bigger example of that than Natalie), partly because Natalie will, eventually and often, get to be right.

But I also think it's one of the funniest episodes in the bunch, and, like Jed Bartlet, I like the sight of colleagues enjoying each other's company outside work. I adore the whole poker game, even if it was basically written to allow Malina to show off his chip-flipping skills.

Rick said...

@Rinaldo: Again, I see it the opposite way- if you were going to write a story line somehow involving The Lion King, what story SHOULD have been used? I picture the synergy came before the story was written, though I give Sorkin credit for very good use of product placement that actually affects a character.

Alan, have you given more thought to staying with Two-a-week for Sports Night? Following your Wire Rewinds- discussing an hour of the densest story on television, it suddenly feels empty when reading about one twenty-minute episode of a much lighter show.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Rick, plan is to stick with doubled-up reviews for however many I get to before summer's over.

graciela said...

29K has always annoyed me -- yes, Sorkin, I keep wanting to say, I get the message, now could we just move on? How about a game of poker?

The thing we learn from 29K is that life is indeed a vicious circle. There are homeless people seeking shelter in the atrium. Then there's Dan, the rich white anchor boy in his safe, warm, brightly-lit little world, obsessing over what to do with his disposable income -- Dana's there, too, going on and on about her Lion King experience, and of course we have Casey who thinks he's starving. Natalie and Isaac try to set Dan straight, but at the end of the day, even after coming face-to-face with an actual homeless guy, you see that he hasn't learned a thing. He's watching TV, marveling at the mountain climbers, seeing their ascent of Everest as a symbol of what mankind can do, and sitting right there next to him is the living proof of what mankind can't do, or won't do, or is too self-involved to do. The poor we shall always have with us. The clueless, too. It is indeed a vicious circle.

As someone who has come to care about those characters, I guess what I resent most is Sorkin using them that way. Whenever he gets preachy, they do and say things that don't always ring true.

After "The Weight" that is 29K, Shoe Money is a breath of fresh air and I simply want to enjoy it, and I do, especially the work of Felicity Huffman. Of course I wish Natalie had won the game and hadn't needed the white dress shirt to make things up with Jeremy. I wish Casey wasn't so gaga over the way Sally looks. And I wish Dana wasn't so bothered by Casey's lusting after Sally. Yes, it's all another vicious circle, isn't it, though this episode is at least more fun.

BF said...

To me, this is the one truly funny episode of the show, well ahead of "Thespis."

If we're going solely on funny, I don't see how "The Cut Man Cometh" loses.

Hannah Lee said...

29K is not my favorite episode. As you said, Alan, it has Sorkin over arguing a point, being preachy for no good entertaining reason. That was one of the issues with S60 that made me finally tune out of that show. I could take it for an episode or 2 with smart characters I had come to love, who seemed to have great affection for each other. I could not, however, take it for an entire season with idiot characters that I did not know or like. That being said, 29K has it's moments: Natalie snarking on Dan, the rulers bit, Dana's radiant joy of the theater (especially The Lion King, with Robert Guillaume's connection and all) and this:

Dana: The lights went out, and this woman, with a voice like thunder, this woman, she summons all the animals of the jungle to appear and honor the birth of the new lion king. She summons the animals with her voice. And do you know, do you know what happens next?
Dan: The animals appear?

Felicity Huffman really sells Dana's captivation. And I've always loved Dan's/Josh Charles' response there. He's sweet, appreciative, mocking and a little afraid of the crazy, all at the same time (how does someone do that?) Even in an episode like this one that's a bit clunky, there are still good moments, and the cast still delivers. That's one of the reasons why I love this show.

Shoe Money Tonight, however, to me is just silly fun. From "being in the zone" to snapping pencils while rolling off camera in frustration to fighting about Henny Youngman (or was it Benny Goodwin?) to "You know someone named Judy Rudy Tootie?" to "Rack 'em up Casey" to "we're going to have a little talk, aren't we?" to "how are my guys? Us???" to "the good chair" to Isaac as "lil buddy" to Dana's dealing cards with narration at the end, it just seems like everyone is having fun, and I had fun right along with them.

BTW, @graciela, is it you we have to thank for having the Sports Night scripts online for many many years? I can't tell you how many times I referred to them when trying to quickly get a quote just right, because I knew if I popped in a DVD to check the line, I'd just keep watching and watching. Have you found a new home for them?

graciela said...

Hannah Lee, I only wish I were the person who created that website. I certainly visited it enough times. I miss it. I feel as though I've lost a dear old friend.

I'm just rereading what I wrote today and regretting the tone. I don't mean to be so negative. I just have a bad reaction to 29K; as you say, there are some lovely moments in it. Shoe Money is clearly more of a favorite with me. I love Dana sitting with Danny and her "Whoa, Huckleberry" to Casey. Her banter with Isaac is priceless.

CJ at Creating a Comic said...

I noticed "Hal's" (great DFW reference) original comment, too, and it made me think. Tonally, it's mostly accurate, especially -- being very vague here -- the rather disquieting fight that Jeremy and Natalie later have about their different social needs. That still makes me uncomfortable. But there is one specific instance in which the "Jeremy is always right" dynamic isn't accurate, and which I absolutely loved, because the writing was beautiful. The exchange included "I didn't behave like a man" / "But you're apologizing like one."

I agree that The Cut Man Cometh is the funniest ep. But FAR AND AWAY my favorite episode of Sports Night is "The Six Southern Gentlemen..." so I'm tickled that we'll be getting to it next week. It's rare when both the A story AND the B story can touch you enough to make you well up a bit...

Mike C said...

Like "L Sacks", I immediately thought of the "Small Town" Jeremy/Natalie argument regarding the "Jeremy always wins" thought. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves episode-wise, but that argument had Natalie winning and also played off the idea that Jeremy usually wins in arguments.

And like Linda, the "shrinking Isaac" running joke never fails to crack me up. Though my favorite is the "where's Isaac?!?" mock panic.

Finally, Dana and CJ Cregg have very similar styles of dealing seven card stud. That's an odd coincidence. :-)

Matthew said...

(played by Brenda Strong, who would get more work, I believe, if she wasn't taller than most of her insecure potential male co-stars)

I never realised until that scene with Dana just how freakishly tall Brenda Strong is/ I spent the first few seconds of that scene wondering if there was some kind of step or platform in the set that she was standing on.

Just a minor point, but did anyone notice the surprisingly awful work keeping the sound mikes out of sight? In the scene where Dan and Jeremy "talk while walking to the bathroom", the mike is clearly visible twice within ten seconds in two seperate shots - firstly, as Dan says "I don't think anyone saw through your clever ruse", then when they walk into the office and Jeremy talks about "some rule that no-one ever taught me". I was surprised by how sloppy that work was.

Not much to say about the actual episodes that haven't already been said. Definitely flawed, but with enough entertainment value that you can't really hold it against the show.

Sarah D Bunting said...

"But there is one specific instance in which the "Jeremy is always right" dynamic isn't accurate, and which I absolutely loved, because the writing was beautiful. The exchange included "I didn't behave like a man" / "But you're apologizing like one.""

Just watched that ep, and: yeah. Sorkin's tendency to write women via his analysis *of* them, versus how we actually might behave, drives me nuts; it's like he's got to make the girls all daffy and insecure so he can feel better about himself (and if he doesn't do that, he makes them kinda trampy, eg., Sally).

Natalie and Jeremy are well enough *acted* characters that this bothers me less than it might -- ditto CJ Cregg, later -- but when she busts out the white-shirt line here, I just can't stand it. Way to undercut your own plea to be taken seriously by defaulting to "but I'm cute" mode. (Jeremy's callback response of "I was never in it" is really funny, though.)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that Schlamme did not direct Shoe Money Tonight, but has named his company Shoe Money.