Binge or Purge? Sports Night

Sports Night (Screen: ABC)

Is Aaron Sorkin’s late nineties sitcom the perfect cure for World Cup withdrawal? Find out here, in the Binge or Purge? Sports Night edition.

Show

Sports Night, currently streaming on Hulu Plus

Premise

This late nineties sitcom takes a behind-the-scenes look at a national nightly sports news show. The ensemble cast includes Sports Night’s hosts, recent divorcee Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and his younger, hipper cohort, Dan Rydell (Josh Charles); producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), who is also Casey’s longtime love interest; assistant producers and on-again/off-again lovers, Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina) and Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd); and network bigwig Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume), who oversees this happy, dysfunctional work family at their Rockefeller Center studio.

Legacy

Here is where screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who would later go on to create The West Wing and The Newsroom) established his trademark style, featuring witty characters in a professional setting, engaging in wordy, fast-paced dialog, plus the occasional impassioned political rant. Several of Sports Night‘s cast members would go on to other highly acclaimed series such as Parenthood (Krause), Desperate Housewives (Huffman), The Good Wife (Charles) and Scandal (Malina).

What’s to Love Now

It’s certainly a well-crafted show. As always, Sorkin expertly captures the raw energy of a busy, often chaotic, high profile production. These characters live and breathe sports journalism. Story-centric dialog is deftly interwoven with shop talk, which makes you feel like you’re in the thick of it. You may even learn a thing or two about producing live TV. The workplace is a character in itself, possibly the most interesting one.

No surprise, there’s a lot of great acting here; the cast’s cumulative post-show success attests to their abilities. But for me, veteran actor Robert Guillaume is the finest gem in this crowd. You know why Benson was my favorite show when I was five years old? Because even then, I knew he was always the hottest, suavest, smartest mofo in the room. On Sports Night, he remains so.

What Makes Us Groan

It’s so FREAKING annoying. 21 minutes is too short a time to pack in all of Sorkin’s sophomoric moralism 1 and “To quote a great man” pretensions, not to mention all that self-consciously clever dialog we’ve seen him recycle again and again. When I first watched this show on DVD ten years ago (when I was not yet familiar with the Sorkin’s schtick), I told the friend who recommended it to me, “I kinda wanna smack everyone in the face, but I really like it.” These days, I feel all the former sentiment and none of the latter. For one thing, there’s too much meandering “dude bro” banter like this:

Dan (discussing his gambling prowess): I’m in the zone.
Casey: There’s no zone.
Dan: There’s a zone.
Casey: There really isn’t.
Dan: There’s a very palpable zone, my friend, and I am in it.

Maybe in 1998 this seemed like picking up where Seinfeld had just left off. The difference is that Jerry and his pals were just everyday people, not a bunch of smarmy, rich, lame-o liberal frat boys in love with their own tepid wit.

And the women? Oh, the women. Dana and Natalie are both very smart and competent. They’re also boy-crazy and irrational about their romantic affairs, which figure prominently in almost every episode. It’s as if Sorkin and Co. heard about the Bechdel test and said to themselves, “Let’s fail this as often as possible.” I challenge you to find a conversation between these two women that is not primarily about their men.

It’s harder to get away with such dopey characterizations in this age of the next-day, critical think piece, which reminds me of another thing: Sports Night is from the internet dark ages. Ye olde World Wide Web barely earns a mention in their work environment, giving the show a dated quality that clashes against its purported hipness. It’s sort of like Dan’s recurring claim that soccer isn’t a real sport, or the shots of the World Trade Center that begin several episodes – all subtle reminders that this reality no longer exists, if it ever did.

Verdict

Sports Night doesn’t hold up well. The sitcom format ill suits Sorkin’s intense style and it comes off as heavy handed. And yet, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get sucked in. I could spend all day picking apart these characters and their creepy, defective dynamics. If you have the time and energy for hate-watching, then binge away. Otherwise, purge it from thine queue.

Navigational Tips

Season one has the most terrible intermittent laugh track ever. They wisely ditched that in season two and toned down the winky, “look how clever we are!” banter. If you enjoy Sorkin’s work in earnest, you’d likely prefer the second season. If you’re hate-watching, season one is a treasure trove. I just ask that you pretty please watch episode five “Mary Pat Shelby”, in which an NFL player assaults Natalie in a locker room, then follow up with episode six “The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail”, in which Natalie receives hate mail death threats and everyone decides that getting Jeremy to ask her out is the best way to cheer her up. Then drop me a line. Do I have a wordy, impassioned political rant for you!

  1. see S1 E3 “The Hungry and the Hunted”, with Jeremy’s emotionally overwrought, anti-hunting tirade – GROAN  

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Tara Rose
About Tara Rose 106 Articles
Since 2009, Tara has been writing snarky essays about pop culture, motherhood and her various neuroses at Rare Oats. She spends most of her other time selling cheese, raising a small human and goofing off with her husband Dan. E-mail: tara@whatelseison.tv
Contact: Twitter
  • Wendell McKay

    It was pretty awful, wasn’t it? I actually preferred the laugh track because it managed to showcase the inherent, almost comical self-importance of this show. The man should be legally tried for what he did to Felicity Huffman (though if memory serves, this was kind of a boost to her career at the time, though I may be wrong). That said, there was this glorious line from Robert Guillaume when Josh Charles’s character was being clueless about his ability to near-singlehandedly end the drug war:

    “You know I love you, right? It’s because I love you that I can say this: No rich young white guy’s ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks.”

    It’s almost as if Sorkin, for a brief, shining moment, realized what “physician, heal thyself” meant.

  • Tara Rose

    Dude. I almost quoted that Rosa Parks line in a footnote. Hands down, best bit of dialog from the whole series.

    I assume this series was a boost to Huffman’s career, but her character is definitely the most insulting. The episode when she tells newly single Natalie that she doesn’t need a man even though she craves “a check on my femininity” at the end of the day (women leaders need that, apparently), then throws herself at the ratings guy who’s been sent in to micromanage her… well, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?