Sports Night - 10th Anniversary Edition Review
I don't feel like I can objectively review Sports Night. I don't feel like it's even necessary to follow any sort of rigid attempt to determine the value or inherent worth of Aaron Sorkin's first stab at television. And most importantly, I don't feel like the gods of the hallowed halls of the fictional CSC network or the masters of reviewing, love letters or the small screen would require any such objectivity. I love Sports Night. I can watch certain episodes repeatedly and laugh and cry before the inspiring moments even happen. My instinct tells me that such reverence is because the show really is that good and not just a trickle down of where it sits in my own life. Then again, my instinct also wants to be Dan Rydell. The smart money sits comfortably with the former, but I still can't think of another television character I'd like to be more.
Sports Night gets sidled with the somewhat defensive disclaimer that it's not "really" about sports. That sports is happily relegated to the background as a mere subject that helps form the action of the series. No, I disagree. While it's entirely possible to not understand or appreciate the art of sports and still enjoy Sports Night immensely, that doesn't mean that the show itself isn't about sports. It very much is. It's just not the main focus. I can't think of another legitimate series on television that's ever approached sports in such a reverential and honest way. The show makes clear that it holds sports to a higher plane, the type that more intellectual sports fans are repeatedly disappointed by. Like the series, we love sports and all its idiosyncrasies. We're just constantly hurt by the decidedly un-model behaviour exhibited by so many of its best athletes. When a performance enhancement charge hits or any other act of impropriety, especially those involving violence, it's a blight against the entirety of sports. Sports Night is one of the very few places where such intellectualising is allowed and, too, where one can feel at home appreciating overpaid mortals being allowed to play games with world-class precision. To wit, Jeremy's indulgence in his very first highlight reel, overemphasising the battle between pitcher and batter, endears itself to baseball fans everywhere. Highlight reels be damned, it really is about the battle. Of course, the show itself was engaged in a battle of its own seemingly at all times.
It did have both the advantage and the disappointment that comes with only lasting two seasons. The show debuted on ABC in September of 1998 and was squeezed out for the 2000 fall season so that the network could air four nights of the popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which quickly fizzled and died in prime time. Truthfully, I've never forgiven network television for this. I tend to hold grudges quite vigorously and this is one I'll probably keep forever. Supposedly, there were offers or at least rumours of offers to extend Sports Night's life on another network or cable, but nothing came to pass. Creator and hands-on writer Sorkin was involved with the increasingly successful The West Wing, a show that seemed to win the viewers and awards Sports Night couldn't find. Series regulars Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman would eventually go on to more notoriety on, respectively, Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives. Call me grumpy, but I'll take the 45 episodes of Sports Night over any of those other outings.
Such a relatively short run kept the show always on its toes, always well-oiled and at peak form. You could argue with good reason that too many programmes tend to lose some lustre when cranking out season after season of product. That's not going to alleviate my ire at ABC for prematurely canceling Sports Night, but it's reason enough to be content that the show never came close to a downturn. The intangible magic that ran roughshod across Sorkin's firstborn was such a relief from the mass stupidity and mediocrity occupying television at the time that it seems a small miracle it ever aired in the first place. Armed with a network-imposed laugh track, Sports Night almost seemed destined to fail from the beginning. The beats required for canned laughter simply weren't there and all those fake, exaggerated guffaws sound ridiculous. It's not that the show isn't funny. It's just that the humour isn't dependent on directing the audience to laugh. Nonetheless, the show did persevere through two full seasons and I suppose its existence at all is worth being thankful for in retrospect.
The obligatory set-up, albeit five paragraphs in now, circles around six principal cast members. Gleaning proudly from the mid-nineties glory days of ESPN's SportsCenter, Sorkin's show positioned a pair of anchors, Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause), alongside producers Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd), and Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina). The fictional Sports Night was given a third place standing and aired on the equally fake CSC network out of midtown Manhattan. Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) was the man entrusted by the network to keep the show running smoothly. Throughout the two brilliant seasons, several secondary characters had brief arcs, including Dana's boyfriend Gordon (Ted McGinley), West Coast Update producer Sally (Brenda Strong), Dan's fleeting paramour Rebecca (Teri Polo), and ratings expert Sam Donovan (William H. Macy). Even in their short time, each of these proved integral to the larger picture of the series.
Actually, there are no false notes in the entirety of Sorkin's creation. It's the recurring guests, the main cast, the writing, the direction (most often from Thomas Schlamme), the music selection, the pacing, the walk and talk, and everything in between the margins. So much of Sports Night works because it builds off of something else. Sorkin's rapid fire dialogue, seemingly best suited for the rhythms of 1930s screwball comedies, only succeeds because he has the right performers completely in tune to those beats. When a song is inserted into the final scene it has to fit within the entirety of the episode, and it always does. Those guest actors can't slide into the show unless both writing and performance merge for just the right effect. Over and over again, these little details amount to greatness. The elements combine for the fastest 21 minutes you've ever imagined.
Throughout the show's run, there are little moments of perfection that play on the emotions in ways that are neither cheap nor fraudulent. Early in season one, things get arguably heavy handed at times, and it may be my liberal guilt talking, but you're proud that someone is saying these things at all. Simply having Jeremy's speech against slaughtering defenseless animals in the name of hunting in "The Hungry and the Hunted" can be enough. Similarly, witnessing Dan's recognition of matching action to belief as he shares half of a turkey sandwich with a homeless man in "The Quality of Mercy at 29K" hits some spot that I'm not sure should really be quenched by an episode of scripted television, but it nonetheless is. If it's preachy then so be it. There's a sense attached to these moments where you know it might be a bit overdone, but the emotion it hits is something craved and hardly ever satisfied elsewhere. Another one of these tingles happens when Isaac finds himself in front of the camera to protest a southern college's policy of flying the Confederate flag in "Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee." This too moves us and challenges our complacency in the best way possible. Those who choose to keep the cynical setting firmly in place may balk, but moments like these are what make television worth watching as something other than mere time killer.
Even when the social issues get largely put on the back burner, as they do for most of the series after season one's first half, Sorkin's writing is strong enough to elicit deep, affecting emotion and truly reach out to touch the viewer. I'm thinking particularly of the back-to-back episodes "The Sword of Orion" and "Eli's Coming" and how diametrically opposed their endings feel. The former closes with Dan and Rebecca walking on air out of the CSC offices on their way to a romantic night at a hotel as "Sloop John B" plays. It's one of those reminders of how life should be, how we want it to be and how maybe some day it will be. The contrast in "Eli's Coming," which is perhaps the show's finest episode, hits us with not only the premature bump in the road for Dan and Rebecca, but, more poignantly, the news that Isaac suffered a stroke. This was how Sports Night dealt with the real stroke that hit Robert Guillaume and it's hardly imaginable to have been handled any better. Few ailments in the history of television have ever felt less contrived or found a more heartfelt portrayal than what afflicts character and actor here.
By season two, there was a slight shift in how the episodes were being made, with Sorkin still involved but sharing writing duties and Schlamme also off with The West Wing. The change is palpable in the episodes, which shift away from the first season's underlining commentary and instead focus more on character development. The ship still stays on course, to be sure, but I do tend to enjoy that initial offering a bit more. The emotional wallop isn't as pronounced in the second season. Instead, a sense of foreboding doom is cast over everything. This is undoubtedly due to the real tension ABC was forcing on Sports Night by just barely renewing it and constantly threatening to take the show off the air. What we end up seeing on screen is perhaps the greatest example of turning behind the scenes struggles into meta bleeding of the heart, a trick later copied by Arrested Development.
Watching season two can sometimes feel like witnessing a prolonged funeral of a beloved friend you knew for just a couple of weeks. Everything is ever so slightly crushed into debilitation, making it all work through the skin of the teeth and the promise of a job well done. Though there are several notable episodes in the second season - for laughs you can't go wrong with "The Cutman Cometh" and for pathos try on the arc with Jeremy's too-short dalliance with porn star Jenny (played by Paula Marshall) - it's the final two entries of both the season and the series as a whole that bring it all back together. Sorkin wrote both episodes and Schlamme directed the finale, effectively putting their baby to bed. So much uncertainty, so close to home. Do we need spoilers here? Nonetheless, as CSC and Sports Night the fictional show are subjected to difficult and unknown circumstances, so is the Sorkin-created version.
ABC was so cagey with its intentions that Sorkin couldn't be sure whether "Quo Vadimus" was the last episode of the series or just the second season. He hedged his bets by capping off a storyline mired in duress with a happy ending, even if his real show couldn't duplicate the fake one. In a way, though, it's perfect. While we're not privileged to witness the exploits of Dan and Casey, Dana, Jeremy, Natalie and Isaac, they live on in the ether. You have to ask yourself whether you'd prefer characters of our revered television shows to simply cease existence upon cancellation or if you'd rather believe they kept on fighting the good fight. Sorkin chose the latter, allowing everyone to live on another day, albeit one we can't watch. So if we're supposed to feel disappointment that Sports Night only lasted 45 episodes, we're at least contented with knowing that the characters were given a reprieve in their own fictional lives. It's a surprisingly warm, unselfish feeling to imagine that Dan and Casey are forever anchoring the third place broadcast absent network interference. All covered with cheese, indeed.
The (Bulging) Discs
Sports Night was an early entry into the TV on DVD phenomenon, first hitting the format in late 2002. That R1 edition was released by Buena Vista/Disney and contained just the show's 45 episodes, with no bonus material. Even so, when it went out of print late last year, there were rumbles as to why. As that reason was eventually made known, that Shout! Factory was preparing a 10th Anniversary Edition of the series, fans truly had a cause for celebration. Now that I've had the opportunity to go through the eight-disc set, I'm glad to report that it doesn't disappoint in the extras department while the quality is at least no worse than the first release.
The video is presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. I no longer have the older set for a direct comparison, but there doesn't appear to be any significant difference. The transfers are interlaced and exhibit some combing. There's prevalent digital noise and artifacting. The image looks rather soft overall. Colours are a strong point and are displayed as vivid and bright. The show almost never used exteriors, setting most of the action inside the well-lit studio, so the palette always looks naturally splendid. It's probably worth mentioning that a few episodes, strangely enough most are in season two, are briefly plagued by vertical blue lines. This is noticeable and seems odd for such a recent show. It would have been nice if the episodes had new transfers, but that may not have been a realistic possibility for Shout! in terms of resources. What we're given will just have to do for the foreseeable future.
When it comes to the audio, the biggest concern fans may have is whether the laugh track remains in place for season one. Unfortunately it does, and the episodes are presented just as they were broadcast. The artificial laughter does gradually get less frequent and quieter as the first season progresses. It's still awful, but, again, I'd guess Shout!'s hands were tied in the matter. The audio included is given only an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. It's clear and consistent. Volume levels are just fine. This is a show that lives and dies on dialogue so everything must be easily heard, which it is here. The musical transitions within the show all sound good enough also. My only complaint is that the menu music, which uses pieces from the show, is too loud in comparison to the show itself. Every time you select an episode to watch, a booming music cue is unleashed. Those looking for subtitles will be disappointed, as there are none to be read.
Anyone familiar with Shout! Factory's other releases of television shows cut down in their prime, including Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, won't be surprised that the label has once again provided supplements that border on being a dream come true for fans. We're given multiple commentaries, featurettes and interviews, gag reels, and a booklet. Discs 1 through 3 contain the first season while disc 4 is a single-layered affair with just bonus features. Similarly, discs 5 through 7 (which are actually labeled discs 1-3 of season two) consist of the second and final season while single-layered disc 8 has a few more extras. For those interested, here's a breakdown of which episodes have commentary and who appears:
Disc 1 - "Pilot" (commentary by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme)
Disc 2 - "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" (commentary by Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Sabrina Lloyd, and director Robert Berlinger), "Small Town" (commentary by editor Janet Ashikaga), "Sally" (commentary by Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Timothy Davis-Reed, and Ron Ostrow)
Disc 3 - "Eli's Coming" (commentary by Peter Krause and Robert Berlinger)
Disc 5 - "Kafelnikov" (commentary by Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Josh Charles, Timothy Davis-Reed, Joshua Malina, and Ron Ostrow)
Disc 7 - "The Local Weather" (commentary by Josh Charles and Joshua Malina), "Quo Vadimus (commentary by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme)
Out of the eight commentary tracks, the two with Sorkin and Schlamme are probably the most informative, but some of what's said does get repeated elsewhere. In truth, none of the commentaries are absolutely essential for more casual fans, but the most enthusiastic contingent will nonetheless be eternally grateful they're included. The one track that includes Sabrina Lloyd is actually the only participation she has in the entire set, which is a disappointment. Of note, some of the commentators are at different locations while recording a particular track, but it appears to have been done simultaneously. The only exception is "Kafelnikov," where Malina and Charles seem to have been recorded first and then the others' comments added in to the blank spots. Technically, it's all fairly seamless. It would've been nice to hear just Charles and Krause talk about a few episodes, though.
All of the commentary principals except Lloyd are heard from again on camera in the featurettes, as are Robert Guillaume and Felicity Huffman. Disc 4 leads off with "The Show" (33:48), which looks back at Sports Night with lots of interviews and clips. It's a great retrospective featurette that shows how proud everyone involved was of their work. The real coup was in getting the participation of so many of the principals. There's little revelatory and it's mostly preaching to the choir, but I'll take it all the same. "Face Off: ESPN's SportsCenter vs. CSC's Sports Night" (21:04) compares the goings-on at the cable sports giant with Sorkin's creation. He's made no secret of the direct inspiration SportsCenter had on Sports Night so it's interesting to hear from several of the behind the scenes people at ESPN. Even the guy who inspired the Jeremy character is interviewed.
For all the nifty reunion material the set has to offer, my favourite bonus feature is probably a lengthy gag reel (11:48) found on disc 4. It's a poor quality copy taken from a VHS prepared for the cast and crew, and it has a time stamp throughout, but what a treat for fans of the show. For what it's worth, I kind of wish the profanity wasn't bleeped. The disc closes with four very good quality promos done by ABC for the initial season. These too are nice additions.
The supplements on the second bonus disc, essentially disc 8, are short enough that all the extras probably could have fit onto a lone dual-layered disc. Regardless, the conversation between Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, titled "Looking Back" (26:09), is an essential no matter its location. There's a lot of nuts and bolts of the show found here, and it's truly a joy to watch the two men most responsible for Sports Night look back on the series. Another featurette explores the technical innovations of the show. "Inside the Locker Room" (21:16) is devoted to discussion of making four cameras look and feel like one, the use of the steadicam and the production design. This could easily become dry, but it never does. Finally, another gag reel (1:54), this one shorter and not even close to the fun of the other, is included.
Tucked away inside the box amid the four slim cases is a 34-page booklet that amounts to something like a mini-bible of all things Sports Night. It begins with two pages written by Aaron Sorkin about how he came up with the show and, from there, includes almost all the information you'd ever want about each individual episode. The writing credits, the director, original broadcast date, sometimes a few bits of trivia and a synopsis can be found for every single episode in the show's run. Commentary participants are located here, as well. The middle of the booklet even has the floor plan for the stage used to film the series, which was transformed into a fully-operational television studio. You can find colour photos sprinkled throughout the booklet, sometimes even taking up full pages.
Sports Night is probably my favorite television series so I'm indulging myself here. The Shout! Factory release could maybe have improved the quality and had a few more extra features, but there's more than enough to give a healthy recommendation. Ultimately, it's not what's lacking so much as what's here. I never really imagined Sports Night would receive another DVD release, much less one with participation from all the main players. That it happened, and that it was done with obvious affection for the show, deserves the loudest applause I can give.