“There’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet. Usually it goes the other way.”
There was never any doubt that I would buy the newly issued 10th anniversary set of “Sports Night,” Aaron Sorkin’s half-hour sitcomish drama/serious comedy that ran for two earnest and (for me) life-changing seasons on ABC from 1998-2000. I already own the original set issued a few years ago, but the folks at Shout Factory (who were also behind the “Freaks & Geeks” set) engineered a nice box that adds a few commentaries and featurettes. The series was Sorkin’s first foray into TV, and that freshness brimmed over into the plots, the beats, and the general rhythm of the show. But the series will always stand out for me because it’s the first one I ever really and truly loved, and I pined for it in the way only a 16- or 17-year-old could, full of love and sadness and a belief that I knew pain and that I was somehow being born into the world of adult drama by regularly tuning in to watch a series the lives of the anchors and production staff of a cable sports show. If we measure a given series’ (or film’s) impact in our lives by the way it meshes with our worldview, then we love even more those stories that actually shape that worldview, hew it out of rock and fear and youth and give us something greater than what we’re seeing; that somehow give us access to the great emotion behind it all, that sense of falling and becoming that’s as powerful as it is fleeting. There are a host of other shows I love for those reasons or ones that are awfully close, but “Sports Night” was the first.
“I want you to trust me, just once, when I tell you that you have three 7s and I have a straight.”
Sorkin’s series was always about the lengths the characters would go to just to save each other from being alone, often/especially in a bigger sense than just a romantic one. In the first season’s “The Hungry and the Hunted,” Jeremy receives what’s known around the office as “the call,” the characters’ emotional recognition of one of their own and their offer of trust and friendship. It sounds incredibly corny to write and almost impossible to pull off, but Sorkin’s heart never left his sleeve, and the episode served as a meta-call for what it wanted in its own viewers. Here is a place, Sorkin seems to say, where people will put their guard down for 22 minutes at a time. I’d never seen that before, and certainly not with any kind of actual effort put into the characterizations. Sorkin was fascinated by the way people are forced to trust each other in relationships, walking right up the blind edge and jumping. Jeremy calls Natalie on her habit of ending relationships before they begin to avoid emotional risk; a year late, Sam tells Dana basically the same thing as he ends his temporary gig at the station. The Dan-Rebecca arc of the first year mined the same territory, from the obvious moments about tearing down walls made of pain to sweet ones set to the strains of “Sloop John B.” The stories placed such a premium on acceptance and connection, but Sorkin did it with a sense of genuine humor and warmth and honesty that made everything feel real.
“Sometimes it’s worth it, taking all the pies in the face. Sometimes you come through it feeling good.”
“And how was your day?”
“Sometimes you just stand there, hip deep in pie.”
But the show was also wonderfully funny, the first time Sorkin could begin to work out the kinks in the joke rhythms he carried over into “The West Wing” when it began on NBC during the second and final year of “Sports Night.” Yes, the lives of the characters are taken seriously, and not immune to melodrama — the Casey/Dana/Gordon triangle gets awfully tangled and punchy toward the end of the first season, and let’s not even get into the whole choreo-animator thing — but Sorkin’s humor helped ground the characters. The second season’s “The Cut Man Cometh” is a fantastic example of a series hitting its stride, from the writing to the acting to the sharp editing that moved the humor beyond what you’d expect from a typical half-hour show. Dan’s signoff at the very end is still a perfect kicker.
“Look, things are gonna be a little rough for a little while, but Lou, I want you to keep your head in the game. We’ll come out the other side of this no problem.”
More than anything, though, the show was unapologetic in the way these characters were a broken but unshakable family unit, a group of people dealing with stiff industry competition and financial hardships and an uphill battle to do what they loved that they still fought with everything they had. Dan Rydell’s emotional breakdown over the course of the second season wasn’t just a way to grow the character: It forced the show’s world to choose between pulling together or pulling apart, and seeing the character who most often had been the family’s moral center begin to veer off course was startling in its effect and heartbreaking in its ultimate resolution. He appears at the office seder to say, “It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I’d like to be the first to start bucking that trend. We need each other badly. Badly. I need you all badly.” It was a kind of callback to a speech he gave Natalie more than a year before after she was assaulted by an athlete, saying at the time, “No matter what you decide, you’ve got friends. And this is what friends gear up for.” The series was also the place Sorkin began expressing his belief in the idea of fighting a good fight despite (or because of) losing odds: Jeremy references the line from The Lion in Winter about how when a fall is all a man has left, “it matters a great deal,” which was Jed Bartlet’s whole thing on “The West Wing.” The show was sweet and sad, proud to walk through life wounded if that’s what it took to stay honest. When I watch it, I still see its flaws — the network-mandated laugh track in the first season; the over-dependence on certain joke structures; the “Thespis” episode in general — but even those shortcomings remind of what it was to watch it the first time a decade ago, to find myself drawn into a new world that ran for two short years but that was allowed to go out with a strong and genuine resolution that makes you feel that the characters are still out there, that their world is still turning.
Jeremy’s hunting experience:
Isaac and the Confederate flag:
Casey learns the names: