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Sports Night

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Given its creator and its concept, Sports Night should have been a foul ball, a bogey, a fumble. Executive producer Aaron Sorkin comes from the movies (he wrote A Few Good Men and The American President), and you know how rarely film guys understand the differences between the two media: Even Steven Spielberg goofed it up when he did Amazing Stories in the ’80s, and just look at the trouble Barry (Get Shorty) Sonnenfeld is currently having with his faltering Fantasy Island. Furthermore, Sports Night‘s concept — a behind-the-scenes look at a jock newscast á la ESPN’s SportsCenter — was a golden opportunity to stink up prime time with the sort of smug, smirky, life-drainingly ironic talking heads who’ve outlasted their naughty-boy novelty status on ESPN. (My hunch is that the real reason the paragon of this style, Keith Olbermann, weaseled out of his MSNBC contract to return to a sports gig was not so much his guilt over exploiting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but rather that he’d come to realize that even in this softest of hard-news environments, he’d never get away with being as smug/smirky/ironic as he was when narrating hockey highlight reels.)

But against all odds, Sports Night is a home run, a hole in one, a touchdown — at once the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series. Sorkin (who writes the majority of the show’s scripts) and regular director Thomas Schlamme have accomplished this not by making their characters noble TV journalists but by showing us what goes on under the skins of people who are smug/smirky/ironic — which is to say, folks who are smart, vulnerable, and a wee bit self-hating.

And so, most episodes of Sports Night commence with coanchors Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) doing their on-air smart-aleck shtick (after one clip, Casey says, ”That’s an incredibly embarrassing moment for any professional athlete, so when we come back, we’re going to show it to you a couple of more times”). But the show also cuts into the control room, where producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) and a crackerjack crew, including her associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) and researcher Jeremy (Joshua Malina), are working furiously, feeding facts and trivia into the anchors’ earphones. Eleven years ago, James Brooks’ Broadcast News, with Holly Hunter and William Hurt, made the controlled frenzy of live TV a revelation; Sports Night builds on that, giving its pace an adrenaline rush unlike any other sitcom.

It’s easy to believe that Casey and Dan are longtime buddies; they finish each other’s sentences and share the Guy Philosophy — i.e., joke about whatever’s really bothering you. What gives Sports Night its real fizz, however, is that the women are also permitted this sort of tough, blunt posture. The not-so-secret heart of the show is that the recently divorced Casey and always-single Dana, friends since college, are at the same time attracted to each other and terrified of the intensity of that attraction, and so, like all good late-’90s neurotics, have opted to do nothing about it.

The result is a smoldering romantic subtext that periodically sets their workplace ablaze. The best instance of this occurred in the Oct. 13 episode, in which Casey tried to bad-mouth Dana’s boyfriend, and flirt a little, for no good reason. Dana called him on it, angrily: ”Every time your life starts to spin out of control, you come after me…. It is not fair…. Knock it off.”

In lighter moments, Casey and Dana play badinage badminton, swatting zingers back and forth with an ease that might remind you of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. All the key performances are first-rate, with special kudos to Huffman, Malina (the latter also so good last season on The Larry Sanders Show), and Benson‘s Robert Guillaume, who grounds the show with his tremendously shrewd, low-key performance as the executive producer.

Some have criticized Sports Night for tending to end episodes with emotional speeches — about drug use or hunting or the fragility of life, for Pete’s sake. You know this is Sorkin flexing the melodrama muscle he developed in his movies (remember Jack Nicholson’s ”You can’t handle the truth” tirade in A Few Good Men?), and yes, it does put a crimp in Sports Night‘s action. But all Sorkin is doing is catching the current post-irony wave: He knows that at this point, we’d rather hear good overwritten scripts than bad underwritten ones. If only for giving glib sportscasters both hearts and souls, Sorkin deserves better ratings than his show gets, and a laugh track that includes the occasional sob as well as giggles. A-