Monday, August 17, 2009

Sports Night Rewind: "Dana and the Deep Blue Sea" & "Sally"

Okay, folks, as my way of thanking Linda Holmes (of NPR's Monkey See blog) for reviewing two "Sports Night" episodes last week that she didn't like much, I'm letting her(*) review the next two episodes, the latter of which is her favorite episode of the series.

(*) Yes, your definition of "letting her" may vary, to include concepts like "begging her to," "imposing upon her to," etc.

Linda's thoughts on "Dana and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Sally" coming right up...

The worst thing about "Dana And The Deep Blue Sea," for my money, is Dana and the deep blue sea – in other words, her paralyzing fear of fish. This theme was done a lot; this business where Dana goes down the rabbit hole of obsessing over some weird side issue. And the fear of fish is the dumbest example. Every time I watch this episode, I think, "If I have to hear the word 'snorkeling' one more time, I am going to just drown myself and get it over with."

What I do like about the episode is that if you MUST have these stories where men prove their love by ignoring the requests of women to be left alone, it's much more palatable to have it played for comedy, as it is here, than for drama, as it mostly was on "Studio 60." The way Casey disbelievingly and mercilessly mocks Dan throughout the episode ("Have you tried telling her at least…twenty times?") and the way Jeremy's attempt to persuade Rebecca goes (mostly) horribly wrong make the story easier for me to take.

Side note: I've never bought the "all covered with cheese" blunder, because that line doesn't sound like anything anyone would remotely say with "trees" in it either.

I really like the fact that there are things in this episode that are funny here that will take on a really different tone later in the series as Dan considers, for instance, the fact that when he wants people to like him, he wants them to watch the show. I admire the character consistency where that's always true of Dan, and sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's kind of sad. That makes it an organic fact of his character and not something invented to serve a particular plot point on a one-time basis.

Final note: Natalie goes so far as to give Casey a talking-to in this episode about how foolish it is of him to stop pursuing Dana just because she asked him to. Aaron Sorkin is REALLY committed to this idea, no fooling.

Okay, let's talk about "Sally." Like most Sorkin episodes where nothing is happening, there is an air of something big about to break. And the pieces of this story click into place one by one.

We first learn that Casey's shirt is missing, which Dan deduces is a sign that he has had sex with someone. This is a significant and somewhat surprising complication, because according to normal television rules, we are supposed to be following a love story (kinda) between Casey and Dana, and his sleeping with someone else, especially someone he tells Isaac he doesn't much know, is a swerve from the usual.

We also learn that Gordon stood Dana up last night. File that away.

Dana, while talking to Natalie, is the one who introduces the possibility that Casey slept with Sally. Sally hasn't appeared for several episodes, so you wouldn't necessarily assume he left his shirt with her; this plants the seed. Natalie's response that Casey would never do that, in part because he's close to Dana and knows it would hurt her – accompanied by Dana's warm, grateful smile – underscores just how vulnerable Dana is on this point.

So now, naturally, Sally drops by Dan and Casey's office and discloses – through a series of comments I can buy as an attempt to speak in code, except for the "someone else's laundry" line, which should have been left out – that indeed, she slept with Casey.

Side point: The likelihood that professional writer Dan Rydell would not know the word "diminutive" is, I think it's safe to say, nonexistent.

Casey's sleeping with Sally is a very big deal. Gordon and Sally have both been set up as jealousy obstacles. The normal trajectory of a love story like this would be that Dana would feel threatened, but just as we believe Dana will not marry Gordon, we expect that Casey will not sleep with Sally – something he clearly did out of physical attraction and loneliness. Another common light-romance notion upended, by the way: Even nice people sometimes have sex for reasons that have little to do with, and that perhaps even fly in the face of, their feelings.

Side note: At this point in the story, it's hard to interpret Sally's behavior; normally, I would consider Casey's "I will sleep with you in private but pretend I barely know you in public" attitude to be a classic violation of Sexual Ethics 101, but since she and Casey may well be in this for the same reasons and he hasn't apparently made any pretense of caring about her, this may just be mutual itch-scratching, in which case Sally is fine.

Anyway, knowing about Casey and Sally bothers Dan for two reasons: (1) He doesn't like Sally; and (2) he immediately recognizes the implications for Casey's relationship with Dana.

That brings us to the totally surprising final shoe-drop. After watching him canoodle with Dana, Casey asks Gordon whether he's met Sally. And there is hemming and hawing and a bit of dancing around, and then Gordon figures out that something is very much up.

"What's on your mind, Casey?"

"You're wearing my shirt, Gordon."

I can't speak for anyone else, but when I first saw this scene, my mouth literally dropped open. There is actually a long pause in the show where they wait for you to figure out what just happened.

This episode already had a shock, right? Casey slept with Sally. That alone set up a perfectly respectable set of complications. The discovery that Gordon also slept with Sally multiplies the complexity by a factor of ten.

From here on out, Casey cannot distinguish selfishness from unselfishness. He has both selfish and unselfish reasons to both come clean and stay quiet. He can save Dana from a faithless boyfriend (unselfish friend motive) and potentially clear the way for himself (selfish motive), but only by demolishing his own relationship with Dana (selfish problem) and causing her a lot of pain (unselfish friend problem).

BUT WAIT! There's more. In calling Gordon out, Casey reveals that he has also slept with Sally. Gordon and Casey both leave this story in very complex positions, because they both understand that they are stalemated. Gordon understands as well as Casey does why Casey doesn't want to rat him out.

The escalating nature of the episode, in which there is a cascade of "oof" moments – Casey slept with someone; oof, Casey slept with Sally ; OOF, SO DID GORDON – is a real feat of character-driven writing. We've talked before about how carefully these people are written so that you know them and you know what they'd do. Casey doesn't like to get involved in drama, doesn't believe in grand gestures, doesn't like to talk about his personal life – Casey might genuinely decide in this situation to say nothing, for both selfish and unselfish reasons, but he'd suffer.

So here is Casey in anguish and frustration, gritting his teeth through a conversation with Dana about how happy she is with Gordon. And then in comes Elliott: "The games have started." A typically unsubtle but effective Sorkin flourish.

And Dana leaves, and the show's single best music idea ever kicks in, with the opening of "Crimson and Clover." What on earth, other than that, would have been as good? We are right on Casey's face as the music dramatically sighs: "Ahhh…" The mood of this closing is so important, because rather than focusing on the intrigue – what Casey will or will not do, the way it would have ended if we'd closed on Casey watching Dana and Gordon and pacing over tense music – it focuses on Casey's confused sadness.

That, my friends, is a pickle. Not a pickle that requires anybody to be stupid or a bad person. That is just a pickle that was set up over quite a long period of time, in terms of setting up all the pieces that make it feel important and agonizing.

Coming up: "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" (which is not the episode involving "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?", but the episode involving Alberto Fedrigati) and "The Sword Of Orion."

Thanks again, Linda. And, indeed, my hope is to get my review of both of those episodes done by the end of this week, since I'll be on vacation for much of the next two weeks. And after that? I dunno. We'll have five episodes left post-"Sword of Orion," and once I'm back from vacation, I'm going to be caught up in reviewing the start of the fall season. So there's a chance we may not get to finish season one until later this year (possibly doing them as holiday specials?), or even next summer. Ah, well. Next time I tackle a show with 22 (or, in this case, 23) episodes in a season, I'm going to double up from the start.

What did everybody else think?


JasonR said...

Thanks again Linda for pinch hitting again.

"Sally" is a great episode and helps me to forgive Sorkin for much of the prior Casey/Dana stuff. I liked your ethics 101 sidebar - I had some of the same thoughts and Sally has a great line in a later episode that touches on this perfectly (I won't say what since I don't remember the spoiler policy for this series).

Also, Alan, I would vote for begging Linda to help you finish this season so we don't have a a long break. That would really suck. And I really like Linda's perspective - having male and female perspectives works great for this show.

JAC said...

Thanks so much, Linda. Wonderful thoughts all around.

My own problem with "all covered with cheese" has always been, why would a supposedly competent writer craft the phrase "a park all covered with trees" in the first place? especially as an incidental point in the story? It just feels horribly false. Sorkin could have come up with a more plausible phrase for the purpose.

It's true about "Sally," and I remember it from first viewing. First, Casey (while pining for Dana) slept with Sally? followed by "Gordon, you're wearing my shirt." It's almost like good Agatha Christie, in the sense that all the clues were out there in plain sight, yet I don't know anyone who wasn't stunned by that moment on first viewing.

JAC said...

On rereading, I see that my point about "trees/cheese" is exactly the same one Linda made. Sorry for being stupid before.

Alan Sepinwall said...

My issue with "park all covered with trees" is that the phrase doesn't seem to explain how the athlete would have gotten her agility and quickness any more than "all covered with cheese" would. It's just there to set up the joke, not because it makes sense on its own.

ninaruth said...

I'm adding my thanks to Linda, and my agreement with the plan to beg, implore, beseech her to help get Season 1 reviewed before fall TV.

I've always assumed that Dan's "diminutive" remark is a crack at Sally's smooth superiority.

Mark S. said...

When I first heard the Gordon, you're wearing my shirt" line I was completely confused and had to re-watch the episode. Apparently I had missed the Sally/laundry pop-in earlier and for a few, brief, very confused minutes, I thought Casey and Gordon had slept together.

Needless to say, after re-watching the episode, it became much clearer.

Susan said...

Linda, thanks for the great recaps and thoughts, especially your terrific step-by-step analysis on why the setup works so very well for my favorite moment/line of the series, "You're wearing my shirt, Gordon." Brilliant, Sorkin at his best.

And I really love that, as you say, Sorkin often lets what we know about these characters build up, so that when we hit moments like this, we bring all of our knowledge of them to that single moment. So we know that Casey likes Dana; that Dana would be jealous that Casey slept with Sally; that Dana is insecure when it comes to both Gordon and Sally; and that no one involved wants to hurt Dana, which is exactly where this is heading.

Mapeel said...

The "Sally" reveal is simply excellent television. But what I don't like about these two episode is how much Dana has devolved as a professional woman. Interrupting her own run-down meeting to start spouting about Gordon is too much.

The Irish Cowgirl said...

Regarding the horrible cheese blunder:
Actually, "all covered with trees" is a quote from a nonsense poem called "The Jumblies" by Edward Lear. It has become a popular poem to teach to children.
That being said, children are known for misinterpreting or playfully changing the lines of poems, and "all covered with cheese" is one such variation.
So, while the flub is a bit far-fetched, it does have some basis.
Cheers for the review. Looks forward to the next!

Hannah Lee said...

I love many things about these episodes: I love the way Dan is mocked "Have you tried telling her at least…twenty times?" and the way Dan's craziness with Rebecca actually ties into his characterization on the show in a bigger way, as Linda mentioned. And I love the way the pieces come together for Casey's line to Gordon.

Like others here, my jaw dropped the first time I heard it. The fact that it was out of the blue (for example, we didn't see Casey connecting the dots in a conversation with Dan) and that it came toward the end of the episode (meaning that it wasn't going to be resolved before the end of the episode in typical sitcom fashion) dispelled any remaining sitcommy expectations I had for Sports Night, and that Crimson & Clover ending (music, camera angles, editing, performance, emotion) sealed the deal.

Also, as much as I object to how competent, professional Dana devolves where her personal life is concerned, there's something about her craziness and desperation here that rings true. She's of an age where she could be wondering if "love and marriage" is going to happen for her, and Gordon is very good about keeping her off balance, never letting her get too confident in the relationship. That combination, combined with her apparently mixed feelings for Casey, could throw her for a loop.

Anonymous said...

It's probably been 5-10 years since I've seen this episode, but I remember not being surprised by the "You're wearing my shirt" line on first viewing. I believe post Dan/Sally/Casey laundry conversation, there's a foreshadowing shot of Casey looking at either Gordon or Gordon and Dana through a window or across a room with an odd look on his face. At the time it just looked to me like Casey was recognizing his shirt on Gordon. In retrospect, this is probably a ridiculous thing to think, even if it turned out to be correct!

Mike said...

Having watched these two episodes one after the other, I wondered for a few seconds whether Isaac's story about his pet fish was an attempt to frighten Dana.

Note that Dan got somewhere with Rebecca when he stopped being charming and cute and started being forceful. I think there's supposed to be a lesson there.

Karen said...

"All covered with cheese" makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it. I don't think about the logic, because I just laugh. Suits me fine.

erin said...

I watched season one of Sports Night I think solely because I heard so much about it (and much of it on this blog), and it was fine. I found much of it annoying, because I don't think that many people are that talk-ily neurotic (and no, it's not a word, and i don't care), although i appreciated the deftness of the writing and Sorkin's refusal to pander to an audience (which probably got the show canned). I didn't find much of it memorable, and haven't followed the recaps even though i just saw it last year, but THIS episode was one I remembered. Everything was brilliant about it--the plotting, the pacing, the characters and the viewer's involvement with them up to this point. I found it to be one of the more enjoyable and surprising episodes of the season. And I really wish there was more use for Brenda Strong in today's TV landscape...she's such a forceful presence, and not just because of her size. I really enjoyed her as Dana's foil.

Isaac Lin said...

Though in a later episode Sally would react somewhat differently, recall that back when Sally first appeared, she frankly said she didn't need a relationship with Casey, just the sex and the contacts. So the viewer has been set up at this point for both sides not to be emotionally involved together.

Linda said...

Isaac: I think you're right. I am undoubtedly being influenced by other episodes, etc., in worrying about Sally's feelings.

graciela said...

About Dana's fear of fish:
When people are scared they often focus, perhaps subconsciously, on something else -- often something funny or inane -- and obsess about it endlessly. It's a form of nervous laughter, a whistling in the dark, a bit of misdirection, a way of pushing people away so they can't see the terror in your eyes -- and of course the person you're hiding from most is yourself.

Which is why Isaac asks her if everything is all right. Yeah, she says, it's just, I'm 33 and I'm very much afraid of fish.

The fish phobia is Dana's phantom fly. Yes, I know, the fly turned out to be real . . . but that 33 is pretty real, too -- ask any single woman.

Austin Gorton said...

If "I told many, many people" was the comedic bit that made me fall in love with this show as a comdey, "you're wearing my shirt" is definitely the moment that made me love the more dramatic/character driven moments of the show. That line is easily one of my favorite moments of the show, and I'm still as shocked and awed by it as I am amused and awed by "I told many, many people."

belinda said...

"You're wearing my shirt, Gordon." is probably one of my favourite moments on the show, because I, too, was completely taken by surprise over this reveal. It was just magnificant, the way the episode had set it up and how it was all done.

Ron said...

"Dana and the Deep Blue Sea" was the first episode I ever watched, and it's what hooked me. No pun intended, but hey. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for that ep.

ZeppJets said...

Remember during Lost season, when we were trying to identify Love Quadrangles on television? Dana/Casey/Gordon/Sally is probably one of the more interesting ones in my mind.

What a sublime episode.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Linda. You are really nailing my exact thought.

Now on to "You're wearing my shirt Gordon." I can still remember the exact moment when I first heard that line. My jaw dropped too. And I can remember saying, "Oh my God!" Out loud. And I was all alone at the time. I was wishing someone else was with me so we could talk about it right then. "Did you see that? Did you know that was coming? Oh my God, this is incredible!" Alas, I was still all alone. At that moment, I knew that this show was my new favorite. (MASH will always be my all time favorite. Sports Night became my current favorite.)

It seems that with Sorkin, I either really love it or I despise it. I sometimes wonder why the actors didn't jump up an down and say, "Please don't make me say that. My character really isn't that stupid." Another plot device that Aaron uses ALOT and drives me insane (don't know if it was in these two episodes as I haven't watched them recently) is when he has one character talk to another character while they are on the phone with someone else. All I can think is that is just so rude. He did it all the time in Sports Night and he did it all the time in The West Wing. (Not sure about Studio 60 as I just didn't care about that one!)

Nancy T.