Keeping a watch on TV

Sports Night takes a swing at jocks, but it’s the real ESPN guys who hit it out of the park

Thanks to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home-run chase, I’ve been watching a lot of ESPN’s SportsCenter lately. And I’m far from the only one: Ratings for the cable net’s 11 p.m. weeknight broadcast have shot up about 15 percent since June. The program’s real highlights, however, haven’t been the sluggers’ athletic feats, but rather the anchors’ witty comments — it’s not just the ads for this show that are hilarious.

The network’s blandly handsome first-string team, Kenny Mayne and Dan Patrick, look like suburban insurance agents, which makes their Mojave-dry humor all the more of a pleasant surprise. Straight man Patrick cleverly opened his interview with the newly crowned McGwire by paraphrasing a line from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I: ”Is it good to be the King?” Master of understatement Mayne’s wisecracks are even subtler: After light-hitting Mets infielder Luis Lopez smacked his second homer of the season, Mayne deadpanned, ”Media pressure will be intense for his third.”

It isn’t easy to make sports funny, as Coach and Arli$$ have painfully proved. Now another sitcom, Sports Night (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.), steps up to the plate. While it packs less comic heat than SportsCenter — which it parodies — it’s not a strikeout.

The blandly handsome Josh Charles and Peter Krause star as Dan Rydell and Casey McCall, anchors at an ESPN-esque channel. Their frat-boyishness is more reminiscent of Craig Kilborn (who split SportsCenter for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and soon moves to CBS’ The Late Late Show) than Patrick and Mayne. In fact, Sports Night’s second episode finds Charles in hot water over an Esquire interview — a story line obviously inspired by Kilborn’s 1997 suspension over sexist remarks he made in the mag.

If only Charles or Krause were half as amusing as Kilborn. Their characters — actually, everyone on Sports Night — are smart and hard-working. Unfortunately, such decent people don’t lend themselves to sidesplitting high jinks. This show’s got more sit than com, which makes the net’s addition of a laugh track (the producers hoped to forgo one) seem even stranger.

The series’ strength is its speed-racer pace. Written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and directed by Thomas Schlamme (Chicago Hope), Sports Night moves like nothing else on TV; it makes ER look like Diagnosis Murder. Characters tear through rooms spitting out staccato bursts of dialogue at each other. This machine-gun banter is expertly handled by the crack ensemble, especially Felicity Huffman (a veteran of David Mamet’s verbal wars) as an interference-running producer.

With its cynical, behind-the-scenes look at TV, Sports Night sometimes seems less inspired by SportsCenter than by The Larry Sanders Show. The presence of Joshua Malina (so wonderfully underhanded as network exec Kenny in Sanders’ final season) as a tightly wrapped new associate producer only adds to this aura. Garry Shandling’s late-night satire wasn’t always a laugh-out-loud affair either, but from the start, its characters had a depth that Sports Night’s have yet to develop.