What Is It?
A sitcom about a sports show that's not exactly a sitcom, and not at all about sports. It was the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin and aired for two seasons before ABC stupidly canned it. It starred Peter Krause and Josh Charles (the straight brother from Six Feet Under and the gay roommate from Threesome, respectively) as the hosts of a SportsCenter-like show on an ESPN-like network. Also on board were Robert Guillaume (Benson) as their boss, desperate housewife Felicity Huffman as the no-nonsense producer, and Sorkin's trusty sidekick Josh Malina (the nebbish from all Sorkin projects) as the assistant producer. UR: -22
Why is it underrated?
Imagine all the wit, charm, and camaraderie of The West Wing without any of the politics or world-shaking crises. That's Sports Night. It had a complete lack of the shoegazing self-importance that makes Studio 60 so saggy and maudlin, and therefore was
what's the word? Fun.
Sports Night is where Sorkin met Tommy Schlamme, and the two pioneered what would become their often imitated trademark: the Walk & Talk™. There's lots of walking in and out of rooms in a surprisingly small set with only a few characters. And there's lots of talking. Fast and funny talking, like Seinfeld racing Gilmore Girls. While walking. Walking and talking and repeating clever little phrases back and forth in cute bits that everyone on the show is "in" on. Walking and talking so quickly probably because Sorkin was on some killer hallucinogens and uppers at the time, and if he sat still for 30 seconds, the imaginary Martian robot zombies would catch and eat him. Yes, Sorkin was at his best when his drug habit was at its worst. Sobriety has ruined the man.
Sports Night was just completely an odd duck, like nothing else on TV, and nobody knew what to make of it. It was a single-camera show, shot like a drama, but only a half hour. This was before Malcolm in the Middle successfully reintroduced single-camera sitcoms to television (thereby paving the way for Arrested Development, The Office, and so on). ABC panicked and thought audiences wouldn't know it was funny without a laugh track, so they affixed the WORST SOUNDING canned laughter in the history of recorded sound. For one thing, the show was very clearly not taped in front of a live studio audience, thus amplifying the off-camera laughs' state of disembodiment. Further complicating matters, Aaron Sorkin insisted on writing clever material for talented actors to deliver, thereby birthing lots of humor without any easy-to-find punch lines or pratfalls or winking into the camera. This was a problem for whoever was in charge of pressing the LAUGH button, as there were no clear indicators of when to press, nor when to slide the dial from POLITE CHUCKLE to GUTBUSTING GUFFAW.
Here’s an example of the Sorkin brand of witty dialogue:
“I find that when I need a stamp there's never one around. This is back when I used to write letters. When I used to write letters, I could never find a stamp.”
“Hey, can you guess what I'm thinking now?”
“That no one gives a damn about me and my history with stamps?”
See, this is clever without being a vaudeville routine. You may or may not have laughed, but it’s obvious to any monkey that there’s no logical cause or place for a roar of robotic laughter. It’s the type of rapid-fire mind-reading repartee that would be perfected on the Wing, and ruined on Studio 60.
Peter Krause and Josh Charles had great chemistry—they were a fast-talking dynamic duo, and played their characters as the type of good friends with a long enough history that they could outthink and outwit one another. One great episode shows their rivalry over who would be voted Hottest Sportscaster on the network’s website. Robert Guillame was the benevolent dictator on the show, the same fatherly sage role that Martin Sheen would fill on the Wing. But the most fun might have been the awkward and fumbly relationship between Josh Molina and Sabrina Lloyd, playing producers of the show, Jeremy and Natalie. Here’s adorable, intimate Jeremy/Natalie dialogue (with no place for a laugh track, damn it!):
NATALIE: Pete Sampras has a little crush on me.
JEREMY: In Natalie World or—
NATALIE: In Natalie World.
Causing further problems was the fact that it was called "Sports Night", thereby preempting non-sports fans from ever tuning in—but it was not a sports show, thereby confusing and alienating any sports fans who did tune in and then understood they should never return.
Sports Night enjoyed a small but rabid fan base - too small to save the show from the hatchet, of course, but large enough to spawn numerous fan sites of scary devotion to characters that weren’t really around long enough to develop a following. So, mostly crazy people were devoted to this show. Sports Night enjoyed a brief run as “nostalgia” a couple of years after it kicked the bucket when Comedy Central picked up its reruns, but with only 46 episodes made and Comedy Central’s habit of running a show three times in a day, they outstayed their welcome pretty quickly.
The good that came of Sports Night’s demise, of course, were the four masterful seasons of West Wing written by Sorkin’s manic-depressive pen. The bad, obviously, is Sorkin thinking he could split the difference between the Wing and Sports Night, resulting in the craptastic season of Studio 60. It’s like instead of plucking the smart levity of West Wing and the cool, feel-good feel of Sports Night to mishmash together, he stripped out those parts and left us with the drama and the pathos respectively, masquerading as a comedy show. Miserable, through and through. Then again, it could be the drugs.
Here’s what we need to happen: Aaron Sorkin, wallowing shamefaced in the cancellation of his darling, needs to be shunned until he locks himself in a hotel room with a bag of 'shrooms and the DVD set of Sports Night, for six to eight weeks, or however long it takes to watch two seasons, find inspiration in your past glory, and write a new show in the same format that would now be appropriately marketed by whichever network it lands on.
Make it happen.