The Complete Series
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Reviewed by Will Harris
t’s far too easy to look across the landscape of television history and find series that deserved success but never found their footing, but it isn’t always quite as easy to determine why those series didn’t succeed. If you sit down and watch “Sports Night: The Complete Series,” however, you won’t need to possess TV-critic credentials to produce a few theories about why it never earned a huge viewing audience. Almost all of those theories, when boiled down to their essence, will equal approximately the same statement: “Sports Night” is a sitcom that doesn’t feel like a sitcom.
The credit for that must be given to one person in particular: Aaron Sorkin.
Though Sorkin is well-known now for his work on NBC’s “The West Wing” (and, to a decidedly lesser extent, on the underrated “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), in 1998, he was a playwright-turned-screenwriter who’d never had a thing to do with television. Sure, his scripts for “A Few Good Men” and “The American President” were crackling with wit and demonstrated a flair for drama, but there was little evidence to suggest that his gifts could translate to the small screen. Nonetheless, when he came forward with a pitch for a show about the backstage goings-on of a nightly sports-news program, ABC saw the promise in the concept and signed him to the task.
To examine the basic elements of “Sports Night,” you can’t perceive anything particularly out of the ordinary about the series. You’ve got two anchors – Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause) – who serve as the on-air talent, a trio of producers (Felicity Huffman, Joshua Malina, and Sabrina Lloyd) who try to keep things from descending into chaos, and Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume), the managing editor who’s arguably in charge of the whole bunch of them. The two associate producers – Jeremy Goodwin (Malina) and Natalie Hurley (Lloyd) – have a thing for each other, and there are also sparks between Casey and the show’s executive producer, Dana Whitaker (Huffman). Jeremy is the show’s resident new guy, Dan’s battling with insecurity, Natalie is constantly trying to prove that she’s as capable as Dana – all of it sounds like typical sitcom stuff.
In Sorkin’s hands, however, what could’ve been a straightforward sitcom along the lines of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “WKRP in Cincinnati” turns into a unique amalgam of comedy and drama; moreover, you’re constantly unsure when it will switch from one to the other. Sorkin’s work as a playwright is evident in the amount of lengthy speeches his characters are given, as well as their tendencies to fall into rapid-fire back-and-forth exchanges, but the show could never have been done on the stage, given its unique walk-and-talk style. Then again, there’s some question as to whether it should’ve been done on network television, since the comedic timing of the scripts in no way lend themselves to the laugh track that was forced upon the series by ABC.
It’s fair to say that ABC never had any idea what to do with “Sports Night.” That’s not to say that they didn’t want to like it, or that they weren’t aware of what a great show Sorkin was producing, but they just had no clue how to push it to a nation of viewers who, at the time, were still used to having their comedies filmed before a live studio audience. An ad campaign for “Sports Night” once tried to explain the series by saying, “It’s about sports the same way ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was about law enforcement.” This might have been the worst campaign in the history of the network, since millions of people would’ve probably otherwise taken a chance on the show simply because it had the word “sports” in its name. But no, ABC had to say right off the bat, “Yeah, but it’s not really about sports.”
Not that they weren’t right, since “Sports Night” isn’t really about sports. It’s about characters that just happened to work for a sports-news program, and although it’ll teach you way more about the television industry than it will about organized sports (such as when an opportunity to interview Michael Jordan comes with strings attached), the series has far more intelligent and thought-provoking matters on its mind. Of particular note is an episode where the “Sports Night” team follows a story about seven college football players who are suspended for refusing to play under the Confederate flag, but the show was dealing with controversial topics as early as Episode Two, when Dan was asked to apologize for comments he made in an interview where he came out in favor of the legalization of marijuana. But don’t get scared off by these heavy topics. There are just as many laughs, loves, and wacky workplace shenanigans in “Sports Night” as you’d expect to find in any sitcom. The key difference is that they’re presented in a far classier manner than you usually see in a show that’s described as a comedy, with the interpersonal relationships between the characters far deeper than what you’ve come to expect from a 30-minute series.
You can understand, then, why America couldn’t get behind “Sports Night” – and why, even ten years down the line, you can watch the show, praise it for its accomplishments, declare how well it holds up, and yet still be forced to close by saying, “And it probably still wouldn’t make it on TV today.” It’s a challenging series for those whose definition of a sitcom isn’t malleable. The timing’s often weird, the dialogue isn’t clichéd, and the laughs often require a moment’s thought for them to sink in. That’s why it’s great, and that’s also why it wasn’t much of a success.
Depressing, isn’t it?
Special Features: Unlike the last time “Sports Night” got the complete series treatment on DVD, the show has finally received the respect it reserves insofar as its bonus material goes, offering up some great featurettes which include new interviews with the cast and creators. “Looking Back” gives Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme an opportunity to take center stage, but the duo also participate in “The Show,” where Charles, Krause, Huffman, Malina and Guillaume all chime in on how wonderful their time on the show was. (Oddly absent, however, is Sabrina Lloyd.) “Face-Off” gives some of the folks from “SportsCenter” the chance to praise “Sports Night” for its authenticity, while “Inside the Locker Room” shows the technical side of the series, spending a fair amount of time on Sorkin’s famous walk-and-talk method. There are also eight audio commentaries spread over the course of the set, along with the gag reels for each season.