Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sports Night (Seasons 1 & 2, 1998-2000)

Sports Night was an exceptional workplace dramedy that originally ran on ABC. While it did last for two full seasons, it never gained much popularity despite an engaging cast, great writing by creator Aaron Sorkin, and a well-edited single-camera format. What a cast it was! Josh Charles played Dan Rydell and Peter Krause played Casey McCall. Dan and Casey were the desk anchors on a nightly sports show called "Sports Night". The show was produced by hyper-producer Dana Whittaker, played wittily by Felicity Huffman. The show's executive manager was Isaac Jaffe, acerbically played by TV veteran Robert Guillaume. Sabrina Lloyd played senior associate producer Natalie Hurley and Joshua Malina played the nerdy and big-hearted associate producer Jeremy Goodwin.

The ensemble cast was terrific. The rapport between Charles and Krause seemed like such a good, genuine friendship that when there were a couple of episodes late in Season 2 where Dan and Casey have a disagreement, I was left feeling sad and uncomfortable. Guillaume had a stroke in real-life during Season 1, and it was written into the show as Isaac's affliction as well. Isaac was the glue that held the show together. Malina played the brainy and slightly naive Jeremy with lots of heart. Huffman nailed the Type-A personality of Dana. If there was a weak link in the show, it was in the character of Natalie, who often got on my nerves. Natalie was an assertive and manipulative character who was basically good, but I often disliked her actions. Lloyd did well with the part, however

Perhaps the biggest asset of Sports Night was creator/writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's scripts were excellent and his dialogue was smart with a rhythmic cadence to it. Sorkin stepped back from the show a little during Season 2, and personally I thought the quality slipped a little then, but Sports Night remained better than most shows even during that time.

Some of the ongoing storylines were particularly compelling. Casey and Dana had a long-simmering attraction to each other that they never acted upon. Dan was charmingly neurotic. There was a late night sports producer named Sally Sasser, played by Brenda Strong, who wanted Dana's job and made a few waves. In Season 2, William H. Macy -- Huffman's real life husband -- had a recurring role as an advisor who could grow ratings. The chemistry between him and Huffman was a delight. The one aspect that didn't work as well for me was the romantic relationship between Jeremy and Natalie.

Most of the cast had great success following the demise of Sports Night. Charles showed up in a number of roles before becoming an Emmy-nominated supporting player of The Good Wife. Krause had long rune on shows such as Six Feet Under and Parenthood. Huffman won an Emmy for her role in Desperate Housewives. Malina became an integral part of Sorkin's The West Wing. Guillaume seemed to cut back on his acting gigs.  I never saw anything else from Lloyd.

Sports Night started its run with a canned laugh track, which Sorkin successfully convinced the network to abandon. It hit a lot of character-driven comedic highs, but because it was character-driven, the dramatic moments were equally powerful. The life of Sports Night was all-too-brief, but for a couple of glorious years, it was one of the brightest gems of network television. It still holds up well, though frequent shots of the World Trade Center are now sad to see in its historical context. Grade: A.

I saw most -- if not all -- episodes of Sports Night during its original 1998-2000 run on ABC. I re-watched the series via Netflix Streaming during January and February 2013.

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