Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sports Night rewind: "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" & "Smokey"

Okay, trying to slip in a "Sports Night" post while I have a few minutes of downtime here at press tour. Some thoughts on "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" and "Smokey" coming up just as soon as I make a little list...
"You've got to stop thinking of me as the champion of all things black." -Isaac

"Natalie's my second-in-command, she's the only one I told." -Dana
"Jeremy's my boyfriend. He's the only one I told." -Natalie
"I told many, many people." -Jeremy
When a black actor reaches a certain age, and a certain stature within the entertainment industry, there can be the danger of what I consider The Morgan Freeman Problem, where they're expected to play dignified, wise characters who represent all that is good and decent in this world, and who are primarily there to help set the white characters straight.

Robert Guillaume, like Freeman, has played plenty of those roles, and there are definitely times on "Sports Night" where Isaac veers dangerously close to that stereotype. On the surface, a lot of "Six Southern Gentlemen" is about the staff's expectation that Isaac will always be available to play that role for them.

But what makes "Six Southern Gentlemen," and the Isaac scenes in "Smokey," so interesting, is Isaac's own awareness of that role, and of the staff's expectation that he play it, and his own reluctance to do it because he's grown too comfortable -- and too old -- to risk losing his job so he can show the young'uns how to do the right thing. And that aspect of the storyline isn't diminished just because Isaac does, in the end, publicly shame Luther Sachs into saving Roland Shepard and his six teammates.

Now it would be nice to have a transition scene between Isaac dismissing Dan and Isaac telling Dana to clear some time in the show. I can see how Isaac might have wrestled with the decision after Dan left, but it would have been nice to see, even if it was just 15 seconds of Isaac at his desk, growing increasingly antsy. It feels like the "to hell with it" moment is missing, but Guillaume is a good enough actor to cover that gap.

And the thing that spares Guillaume from falling into the stereotype -- and that elevates the better-written Freeman roles in this category, like Red in "Shawshank" -- is that his writer understands that before Guillaume was respectable, he was simply funny. So even as Isaac is being noble and a martyr and all the rest, he still gets to ever-so-subtly make fun of Sally, or to banter with Dana about the concept of grooming. And because he's a person and not just an ideal, the moments when Isaac is heroic feel richer and more earned.

Casey gets the other story in both episodes, first learning a valuable Christmastime lesson about acknowledging your co-workers in "Six Southern Gentlemen," then practicing his flirting with Dana in "Smokey." The "Southern Gentlemen" subplot is fairly straightforward and sweet, so let's focus on "Smokey."

Though I have before and will in the future decry a lot of what Sorkin does with the Dana/Casey relationship, Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman had undeniable chemistry. What makes their "Smokey" story work is that it's really just an excuse to watch the two actors work together. There are no real stakes, no plot convolutions, just the two of them pretending to flirt, and then discovering that they're actually flirting. More of this, and less of some of what's coming (including in the next episode, "Small Town"), and I might think very differently about this whole storyline.

Some other thoughts:

• Janel Moloney, who played assistant wardrobe supervisor Monica, would of course go on to play Donnatella Moss on "West Wing."

• So bizarre to see Casey on old-school "The View," with Meredith, Debbie and a still-plus-sized Star -- and to watch it in the middle of a week where we had press tour sessions with Joy and then with Whoopi Goldberg.

• For the most part, I try to let the show slide on its level of verisimilitude, but when you have a subplot about characters debating the Play of the Year, shouldn't they be discussing, you know, plays? Almost everything that Jeremy, Kim and company were arguing about were potential Moments of the Year, but not individual plays.

• Much as I enjoy this show, I rarely it found it to be a laugh-out-loud, ha=ha kind of comedy, but the Dana/Natalie/Jeremy three-hander from "Smokey" that I quoted at the top may be the single funniest moment of the series. Perfectly set up by the first two lines, and delivered in perfect matter-of-fact fashion by Joshua Malina on the punchline. Had Jeremy not immediately fessed up, it's not remotely as funny.

• Sorkin's addiction to repeating a phrase simply for the sake of it would abate as his TV career went along, but it's still alive and well in "Smokey," where Dan and Casey repeat variations of "It's time" approximately 8,739 times in the episode's first five minutes.

• Speaking of Sorkin recurring devices, in "Smokey," Sally becomes the latest character to recite the details of her resume. Because she's Sally, and we're supposed to dislike her, her CV isn't nearly as impressive as Dana's.

Coming up next: "Small Town," in which Dana and Casey try to double date, while Natalie takes the wheel; and "Rebecca," in which Dan is intrigued by a CSC marketing analyst.

Don't count on seeing those for a bit, possibly not even next week (when I'm back from press tour), depending on how much catch-up I have to do.

What did everybody else think?


Isaac Lin said...

Though when I first saw "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" I loved Isaac's speech, now watching it in retrospect, it seems like a very bad idea to call out your boss like that on a national broadcast without any forewarning. I think other tactics could have been used that would have been as effective and not been as damaging to Isaac's relationship with Luthor, though of course they would have been less dramatic.

As for Sorkin's penchant for having characters repeat themselves: it seems to me they did so constantly on The West Wing too, sometimes in isolation (I presume as a technique to show how much in synch the characters were in their purpose) and sometimes repeating what someone else had said to them.

Isaac Lin said...

One more point: although Janel Moloney's scene is one that makes me squirm on Casey's behalf, the revelation he experiences is a key reason why I rewatch this episode (together with the thanks at the end, where I look out for actual production staff members being thanked).

Robert Cervantes said...

Is the guy in the picture the professor from Saved By The Bell: The College Years? The ethics professor. He was also Dr. Christian Troy's doctor last season on Nip Tuck.

Alyson said...

Ah, good to know we'll eventually be getting around to Small Town, so I can work up my rant about how the entire episode is the least realistic ep of a show that at least pays some lip service to the way a real sports highlight show would run.

I've always wondered who Sorkin might have cast, had they gotten to the point where we actually might have met Luther Sachs. Obviously, he works better as a sort of boogeyman, often heard from but never seen, but I think James Earl Jones might have made an interesting choice.

filmcricket said...

@ Alyson: very interesting indeed, since "Six Southern Gentlemen" establishes that Sachs is German by descent and has presumably had no real problem with the Confederate flag being flown at the school. Not to mention that in "Smokey" Isaac points out that "you don't fire a black executive during a race-related public relations problem." None of those things absolutely precludes Sachs from being black, but I think we're supposed to infer that he's white.

I wanted to smack Jeremy during the whole play of the year thing, for being so snide to Kim about the women's Olympic gold. Man, he was annoying in that episode.

Danny being funny about Sally, on the other hand, is one of my favourite moments in the entire series. "You think she wants a job on Sports Night?" "No, I think she wants to rule all of Metropolis." "...She's a very skilled producer." "Of course she's skilled, she's Satan's handmaiden!" Love it.

D said...

"I told many, many people."

Haha, this is also probably my favorite quote of the series. I drop this into conversations whenever I can.

Tina said...

Ha -- "She wants to rule all of Metropolis" is a phrase I work in whenever possible.

Thanks for the mention of the Krause/Huffman chemistry in "Smoky." I'm fond of the episode for that reason. I know far too many people (and am one myself, probably) who can't do flirting either, and they nail it.

Theresa said...

I wanted to smack Jeremy during the whole play of the year thing, for being so snide to Kim about the women's Olympic gold. Man, he was annoying in that episode.

Agreed. Also, he says that NASCAR is "the world's most popular sport." I know he's exaggerating, but picking NASCAR for play of the year? No way.

Mapeel said...

"He's talking about you, you freak."
I love the way Dan says that. I also like the banter between Sally and Issac.

BF said...

I really really love Jeremy's "I told many, many people." and it deserves it's place among the SportsNight Lexicon Pantheon.

But please, a little respect for "You could be having sex with Yoko Ono RIGHT NOW!"

nm said...

I forgive Sorkin for using Guillaume for gravitas because when his series work they always use the top boss for gravitas. For everyone else to play off for the funny. That's why, for me, the only bits of Studio 60 that worked were the ones when Raymond Ma was there to actually be the boss.

Susan said...

I really love the subplot in "Six Southern Gentlemen" with Casey and the costume staffer. It's something Sorkin does very well that other writers/shows don't: gives a character who can mess up and have flaws, but who we can like anyway. And I do love the early glimpse of Janel Moloney and her "gunmetal grey" speech. :)

trishag said...

I particularly like that Janel gets to nod back to this Monica character on The West Wing with a line about Josh's tie bleeding. I believe it was her first line?


forg/jecoup said...

I love the sublot about the wardrobe staff, I really did not saw that coming and it made you realize the unspoken heroes of a tv show. Great writing there

Mike said...

Isaac's relationship with Luthor

"Luther". He's not a good guy, but I don't think he wants to rule all of Metropolis.

it seems like a very bad idea to call out your boss like that on a national broadcast without any forewarning.

Absolutely. It makes Isaac look bipolar. ("I like this job too much to make waves, but I really should do something. What the hell, I'll burn down the building.")

the single funniest moment of the series

Funniest line, maybe. The funniest moment has to be the final time Natalie throws a glass of water in Dan's face.

rosengje said...

No, the funniest moment is during that Y2K test when Casey sits in his chair and completely sinks to the floor. So unexpected and hilarious.

Alexis said...

I hadn't watched this show since it aired but had many fond memories of how great it was. Based on your project here I decided to join in and review an old favorite show. Sadly this will be my last episode - can't STAND it. The heavy morality, the overly kitschy dialog, the idealized workplace nay family, etc. Ugh...too icky sticky sweet for me.

Luckily I'm only on season 3 of Friday Night Lights which is a refreshing palate cleaner!

Linda said...

It's absolutely true -- "I told many, many people" is remarkably funny, considering that it's a pretty basic one-two-three joke, you know? Two are the same, and the last one is the opposite. It's one of the oldest forms in all of comedy, but there's something about the construction...might be the way Dana and Natalie both do the "[blank] is my [blank], she/he's the only one I told" bit, but Jeremy kills the parallel immediately by going right to "I told many, many people." If he says, "Dan and Casey are my bosses, and they're not at all the only ones I told," then it's less funny. It's the way they catch you expecting the third in the set, I think.

I'm fascinated by stuff like that, because it's a really simple joke, and it makes me laugh out loud every single time.

graciela said...

I have trouble believing that Isaac would assign Dan to do that "glories of the Confederate flag" piece. Yes, he would agonize over Luther's demand for such a segment and about the future of those young men in Tennessee and he would worry about losing his job, but I believe a man like Isaac would have dealt with it alone, keeping his own counsel. Of course, that doesn't make for great television, does it? Maybe, somehow, Dan would have known Isaac was dealing with something important and would have visited him in his office -- I imagine Danny not getting a whole lot of information but still being able to communicate to his boss that they're all behind him.

Which is why, given these two episodes, I much prefer Smoky (without the e, I believe). No one preaching at me, no one making characters do things I can't quite believe. A well-oiled machine, you might say.

Flirting. And phone sex. And Sally's ankle. And lots of great banter between Dan and Casey. And that terrific Isaac-and-Dana conversation about grooming. And Yoko Ono. And Dana perched (like a bird come home to roost) on that anchor desk.

Zac F. said...

Earlier in the series of posts, I said that an upcoming episode with a number in the title was my favorite of the series and well, this is the one!

I remember the first time I saw this episode, all I could focus on was the timeline re: Roland Shepard playing two weeks ago when it's said that it's about 8 days before Christmas (December 17th.) The only way I can explain football being played so late is that Tennessee Western is a Division II school whose playoffs go to the middle of December. I know since my school, Grand Valley State has won 4 national championships this decade in D2.

"I told many, many people" is a line that I don't get to use as much as I would like.

No matter how many times I see these episodes, I can never get past why Dan and Casey are over the moon for Sally. I think it's because I don't think Brenda Strong is that good looking. Something about her seems off. I think Felicity, Sabrina and Kayla are better looking than her.

I love how TSSGOT leaves it up in the air whether or nor Dan told Dana about Issac possibly doing an editorial.

Eyeball Wit said...

Anyone else not really get how Dana is "smoky?"

It almost feels like a placeholder that Sorkin put in while he searched for just the right word, but never figured out what it was.

Apropos of the Morgan Freeman syndrome, I always feel that Robert Guillaume is trying just a bit too hard to be dignified on SportsNight.
It's like he's consciously trying not be Benson, who was great because he had a natural dignity and authority that transcended his position.

I would have liked to have seen a snarkier, more pragmatic Isaac who might have found a more subtle way of dealing with Luther.

graciela said...

One of the things that impressed me most about Guillaume's Isaac is that he wasn't Guillaume's Benson. He'd done that character; this was someone new. One of the things I loved most about these early episodes was the development of Isaac Jaffee, someone who wasn't predictable. Just as with Casey and Dan and Dana, there were layers to explore, a history, depth, nuance.

I'll always wonder what lay in store for Isaac -- if only Robert Guillaume hadn't suffered that stroke. I thought it was great they brought him back, but I can't help wonder what was lost in terms of character development.

Eyeball Wit (aka avincent52) said...

I just thought that an Isaac who was a little less wise and a little more of a wise guy would have helped a show that often veered toward Ernestland.

Your post made me check--I didn't really remember whether Robert Guillaume is alive or not, and I'm happy to report that he is. He'll be 82 in November.

graciela said...

I think Sorkin wanted to stay away from the old sitcom rhythms and mindset, which was one reason he was so opposed to the laugh track. Somewhere I read that he was thinking of Lou Grant when he created Isaac -- Lou Grant who was a character on both a comedy and a drama.

Alan in San Antonio said...

This has always my biggest complaint about the series. Look at a map, man!

Chattanooga is not in Western Tennessee. Southern or Eastern would have been better options, but I'm just a hick who spent 25 years in Chattanooga.

Mike said...

I think Felicity, Sabrina and Kayla are better looking than [Brenda Strong].

I think Kayla is better looking than anybody. I don't understands why none of the male characters develop the kind of crush that Asian women that beautiful cause everyplace I've ever worked.

Sarah D Bunting said...

@rosengje: HA! I love that moment! Classic face on Krause, too.

"I always feel that Robert Guillaume is trying just a bit too hard to be dignified on SportsNight."

At least in the 2nd season, I felt like this was at least partly due to trying to enunciate his lines clearly. (The character had a stroke because Guillaume himself did, no?)

I don't think Dana's smoky, either. I'd give you "sassy," under duress, but "smoky" isn't the right word, quite.

Austin Gorton said...

The convo's more or less died out, but I just wanted to affirm that "I told many, many people" is my favorite bit on Sports Night.

I remember, having not watched the show when it was originally aired, that they played that scene on a Comedy Central airing of the show, and I laughed so hard, despite knowing nothing about the plot or characters, that I tracked it down.