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Let’s set the scene: Thirty seconds to air time on a daily network sports show. One of the cohosts pores over his intro as the now-familiar rat-a-tat of Aaron Sorkin’s trademark dialogue erupts into our homes for the first time.
HOST #1 (CASEY): Why are we quoting high-level sources inside the Swiss Olympic Committee on Helsinki’s bid for the 2010 Olympics?
PRODUCER (DANA): I know it’s 12 years away, Case, but—
CASEY: Helsinki’s in Finland.
CASEY: Isaac, Helsinki’s in Finland. It’s okay, I’ll just—
ASSOC. PRODUCER (NATALIE): He says Helsinki’s in Finland.
DANA: I heard him. (TO CASEY) Are you sure?
CASEY: Yes, I’m sure.
ENGINEER: I thought it was in Sweden.
NATALIE: It says “Swiss officials.”
ENGINEER: It should say “Swedish officials.”
INTERN: Graphics, which is it, Sweden or Switzerland?
HOST #2 (DAN): (TO CASEY) This is confidence inspiring, huh? (TO THE CONTROL ROOM) It’s in Finland!
Welcome to Sports Night. The late comedian Ernie Kovacs once said that television is called a medium because it’s neither rare nor well done. Of course, he wasn’t around at the end of the last millennium to see any of the series’ 45 episodes. Fact is, most of the people who were around didn’t see them either; the show ranked 65th in the ratings its debut year.
So if you’re considering opting out because you couldn’t care less how many innings there are in a hockey game or whether you can make a touchdown in golf, think again. Sports Night isn’t about sports any more than Friday Night Lights is about football or Mad Men is about an advertising agency. It takes the Syd Field scriptwriting strategy (“Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down.”), hones it to a razor’s edge, and then allows the cast to radiate.
Nearly a decade and a half before Zooey Deschanel hoisted the geek chic flag on New Girl, Sports Night carved out the underbrush on the path to adorkability with its on-again, off-again love affair between the show’s two nerds, associate producer Natalie Hurley and statistician Jeremy Goodwin. Here are links to two clips, the first of which shows Natalie refusing to accept Jeremy’s breaking up with her, and the second, a longer, slightly more serious one in which a poker game’s stakes get raised to a portentous level.
I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve been a big fan of writer/producer Aaron Sorkin’s work ever since I first saw this show in 1998, and I’ve discovered two things about it in the years since: 1) There’s an underlying humanity in what he does. From Sports Night to The West Wing to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to The Newsroom, he gathers an ensemble cast and drops his characters into an idealized world where they all want to do their best, to make the world a slightly more rational, slightly kinder, slightly smarter place. Speaking of smarter, that leads to 2) Aaron Sorkin knows stuff, and he’s not afraid to work it into his scripts. Whether it’s Jeff Daniels rattling off statistics about America in The Newsroom or Martin Sheen quoting chapter and verse from Leviticus to a holier-than-thou interloper in The West Wing, there’s usually some factoid lurking about that will leave the viewer a tiny bit smarter by show’s end. Here’s William H. Macy as consultant Sam Donovan, delivering an impromptu lecture on the history of television, and an unsung hero named Cliff Gardner.
But the element that elevates a sitcom from a guilty pleasure giggle-fest to Trunkworthy devotion is how it can reach past a cynic’s rib cage and pluck at one’s heartstrings. The Mary Tyler Moore Show did it at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral. M*A*S*H did it when it crashed Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter on his way home from the Korean War. Sports Night does it here.
And that’s a wrap. Good show