Test Pilot #15: Sports Night
Debut date: September 22, 1998
Series legacy: Aaron Sorkin’s first foray into television!
After a short hiatus, Test Pilot is back! Time for more historical pilot analysis – I know, contain your excitement. In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will usually include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series (although this isn’t always the case). I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
For the fourth quartet of Test Pilot files, we are dipping our collective toes back into the pool of a specific genre, just as we did near the end of 2010 with a solid look at the last twenty years of teen dramas. The reason this feature took a minor hiatus is because I was having trouble deciding on where to head next but I think the final choice ended up being a good one. OK, it is probably time that I stop setting this up as if it is some sort of reveal.
Over the next four entries, Test Pilot will be analyzing the sports genre. By that I mean we will be looking at scripted programming that heavily features sports, not news or documentary-style programming about sports. In our culture, there are very few things that are more popular than sports and the relationship between sports and television is well-defined in many ways. Televised sport events are some of the most popular and most-watched things on television, across sport and across television network. From the Super Bowl, to the Masters to the World Series to a random collegiate hockey game, there appears to be an audience for live sports in all corners of television. And of course, programming about sports dominates the dial just the same. Entire networks are dedicated to sports and sports reporting and all four of the major broadcast networks try to integrate as much sports coverage onto their schedules as possible. Most of us love sports and television only strokes that fire within society further.
But despite the overarching dedication to sport and televised sport, fan admiration does not appear to translate to the scripted television realm. Millions of people watch ESPN each day, all day and build their entire lives around televised sports, but the ratings for scripted dramas or comedies featuring sports and the general lack of production of series about sports suggests we like to keep our adoration of “scripted television” and “sports” separate. It seems so odd that two of the major pillars of our society can come together in one way (the televised game or coverage of sports) but not in the other (the fictional, scripted representation of sports). This especially true since sports films tend to do well, or at least moderate so, both with critics and at the box office. Not so on television. Try to Google things like “TV series about sports” or “Sports dramas” or something else similar and your results will come up mostly empty. Try to think about your five favorite series that involved sports. It is okay, I will wait. This is going to take a few minutes, at best. I LOVE sports and I LOVE television, and it took me a moderately long time.
Clearly, I’m being hyperbolic and facetious, but the simple fact of the matter is that although we love scripted television and we love sports – perhaps even more than television – very few creative people have figured out to make a series that combines both of these loves, at least in such a way that we will actually watch.
With this batch of Test Pilot files, we hope to come closer to an answer for why this has happened, not just recently, but for decades: Do the genres of “drama” and “sports” just fail to match, especially from an audience demographic perspective? What actually makes up a series “about” sports or one “featuring” sports? Does the difference matter? How important are the historical contexts? What are the most important identifiable conventions of the sports series?
Of course, there is surely more than one answer to these questions and hopefully by looking at multiple cases over the next few weeks will provide us a bevy of possible suggestions that paint a larger picture of scripted programming about or featuring sports. Some of our choices will be more directly about sports than others, but again, that sort of diversity in the selections will hopefully serve as compelling entry point into the genre. The last quartet focused so closely on one major subject (that being NBC), that it was really easy to sketch out context and make some historical sweeps, but I am unsure if that will be possible here. Well, it’s not impossible clearly, but the lack of major connections between each of the series chosen for this theme will make this more challenging to write, but hopefully better because of it in the end.
For this go around in our sports quartet, things are a bit different. Instead of tackling a series that directly involves athletes and the playing of sports, this entry will focus on a series that doesn’t star any fictional athletes whatsoever: Sports Night. With the rise of ESPN in the ’80s and ’90s and the subsequent uprising of sports coverage online, it seemed pertinent to discuss a series that emphasized the media’s place within our sports-centric culture. I think that Aaron Sorkin’s late ’90s comedy Sports Night fills that role pretty well. With this entry, I’ll be taking the role of veteran viewer, having watched a good amount of Sports Night during its original run (my mom liked it) and randomly catching some reruns on Comedy Central during that super-brief time the cable channel aired it sometime in the mid ’00s. Of course, I hadn’t actually seen an episode of the series since probably 2004 or 2005, so I ended up re-watching the first five or six just to refresh myself. Here we go:
In our first two files in this block, we have discussed a series that displayed the troubling lives athletes lived (The White Shadow) and one that glorified those troubles (Playmakers). I guess it is then fitting that we now tackle one that is all about preaching, ranting and soap-box standing. Sports Night is, without a doubt, one of the most obnoxiously obnoxious sitcoms I have ever watched. I know people talk about the series as more of a dramedy than a comedy, and after re-watching the first few episodes, I understand why. This is series that doesn’t work in the format that it’s shot and produced in (more on that in a second), but also doesn’t work because it’s more interested in delivering multi-minute diatribes about the nadirs of modern sports than providing any real stream of jokes. As a Sorkin admirer, but not fan, I expected to be greeted with walk and talks, sardonic wit and some obvious ideological stuff, but I didn’t expect Sports Night to be so heavy-handed in its criticisms of modern (well, late ’90s modern) sports. Clearly, the 11-year old version of myself that originally watched this series with his mother did not recognize/remember Casey’s big speech in the pilot, Dan’s big speech in episode two or Jeremy’s shocking long big speech in episode three. Basically Sports Night is a series of big speeches.
*Of course, the 22-year old version of myself should have expected just that from a Sorkin series.
Those big speeches are most certainly momentum- and comedy-killing in the context of a 22-minute multi-camera sitcom, but they provide some really compelling discussion points for us here. The late ’90s were a particularly interesting time for sports and its relationship with sports media. Sports Night hits on the complexities of that relationship without recognizing it. You know, because it is still too busy ranting about the horrible things we do to animals when we go hunting. In the halcyon days of yesteryear (maybe the mid ’70s at the latest), sports professionals and sports journalists had a much more cooperative relationship, I guess you could say. We always hear about the stories involving “the boys club” of the locker room where athletes like Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlin were out doing some wild stuff, but the writers and reporters covering them decided it wasn’t worthwhile to bring them down in print. That wasn’t always the case in “those days,” but it generally was. Reporters reported on the games and the context around those games, not the personal lives of the athletes themselves.
Cut to the mid-’80s and ’90s with the rise of satellite television and ESPN in particular, and things are much, much different. With the sheer amount of coverage that was given to sports, outlets like ESPN (and even other cable news outlets) were bound to dig a little deeper into the athletes and their personal lives. The late ’80s and early ’90s were particularly fertile ground for sports scandals that could be covered to death by mainstream news: The announcement that Pete Rose gambled on baseball, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding dust-up, SMU getting the death penalty, Reggie Lewis’ death, Ben Johnson’s steroids test, Magic Johnson’s HIV news and of course, the O.J. Simpson saga. Each of those stories had its own level of mileage in the media, but it was most certainly clear by the mid-’90s that the media was no longer going to protect athletes, shove their misdeeds under the table or glorify them in the same ways that they had been in previous eras. For better or for worse, the modern era of sports journalism was a different beast altogether.
I wouldn’t say journalists or ESPN talking heads intentionally wanted to knock people down a peg, but the sarcastic and dry ways in which Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman talked about some of the era’s most disappointing role models suggested a tinge of malice. The combination of a more critical eye and a more questioning outlook on sports in general certainly brought down the mysticism of “sports heroes” in the late ’80s and beyond. But I’ve always wondered about this: Who is really to blame here? OK, horrible people like O.J. Simpson are most certainly to blame for the crimes they committed. But once ESPN rose to popularity for its 24/7 highlight-centric coverage of sports, what were the athletes supposed to do? ESPN led the charge with its top plays-kind of coverage and as its popularity grew, obviously the athletes wanted to be there. It’s not hard to see the correlation in the increase in “flashy,” “obnoxious” or whatever adjective you want use athlete behavior. Being on TV more means more popularity, which could easily mean more money. People like to get paid. In a lot of ways, athletes were just doing what ESPN and the media asked of them by giving them great “moments” that could be cut into quick highlight packages. And then the media was turning right around and using those behaviors against the athletes. Clearly, O.J., Ben Johnson and Pete Rose deserve the vitriol and criticisms they received, but the intense coverage of athlete’s personal lives and the focus on the flashy, highlight-worthy was bound to blow up in someone’s face.
Sports Night expresses these tensions pretty well. Casey’s big speech in the middle of the episode reviles the terrible things that athletes do and how awful it is for him to have to cover those things. He wants to return to the glory days when IMPORTANT stories like the one about injured runner returning to set a world record really matter. Casey’s jaded and frustrated with hopes that the forgotten days of heartwarming and uplifting stories about the triumph of the human will are the ones that led off Sports Night and SportsCenter. Unfortunately, Casey, his network and his show are part of the problem (presuming they stand in for ESPN like they’re supposed to). You can’t put a microscope on something and then be overwhelmingly shocked that you don’t like what you see. It’s this blind idealism that makes Sports Night so insufferable to watch as a modern sports fan. I tweeted this while watching the first few episodes again, but watching this series is like reading a Rick Reilly column, only much worse. Most of that is Sorkin’s doing, but it still represents the hypocritical relationship that the modern sports media has with the athletes it covers.
This is especially true in the light of the most recent era of sports journalism, powered by the likes of Deadspin, where those reporting on sports have become the subjects all on their own. Knocking ESPN and its employees of their collective high-horse has been a primary directive of the folks over at Deadspin, and for good reason. It turns out that those covering sports also have some personal issues of their own, issues that aren’t far off from the crazy stuff athletes get themselves into these days. In Sports Night, this is most certainly true. Casey, Dan, Jeremy, Dana and Natalie all have their personal quirks and issues, which is of course part of the nature of a television series, but also representative of some of the hypocrisy of speeches like Casey’s. Sure, his post-divorce breakdown isn’t as bad as an athlete beating the hell out of a stranger in a club, but he’s not a saint. His expectations of athletes are too high and too drenched in nostalgia (as evidenced by the fact that he calls his son when the world-breaking runner is on his way) and not focused enough in the realities of the world: People make mistakes, no matter their profession. When Deadspin and others starting turning the tables on ESPN, they sure as hell didn’t like it. ESPN employees are apparently terrified of the tell-all book coming out at the end of the month. If that book was written in the fictional world of Sports Night, I have to imagine that Casey and Dan would feel just the same.
Sports Night is a complicated representation of the sports media. It takes us behind the veil and shows us the unfortunate truth that not all athletes should be heroes for our children, but at the same time rages against that unfortunate truth. I’m not sure how big of a sports fan Sorkin actually is, but his ideologies about the differences between right and wrong are strong enough that the series’ scripts still radiate with enough vitriol. You don’t have to be a stat geek to understand the disappointment behind learning the people who thought were great citizens are actually assholes. But the problems arise when you’re the one shining the light on their asshole behavior and then still reacting with such shock and incredulity. In that respect, Sports Night is very reflective of the modern sports media, but not in the way it thinks it is. It wants to point out some of the problems we should have with athlete behavior today, but unintentionally shows us that the media is probably to blame for a lot of those elevated expectations. We didn’t make O.J. into a murder, but we made him into a hero two decades before when we really didn’t know him at all. We kind of only have ourselves to blame when we assume athletes are who the media says they are.
If we return to this quadrant’s primary question: Is Sports Night a series about sports or one just featuring sports? There are no real athletes who make up this world and most of the episode’s running times are spent discussing the personal melodramas of the characters who work on this television series. This would all suggest that this might be a series that just happens to feature sports and in theory, the series could work if it were about producing a news series or something else entirely different from sports (Oh hey, Sorkin agrees with me!). I think I do agree with those assertions. But the more I think about this series and the more I think about the media’s place in the growth of sports and how we think about sports, I’m not so sure that Sports Night isn’t a series that’s about sports — or at least what Sorkin wants sports to be.
Sports is supposed to be the space where all of our cultural issues can get worked out. The heroes versus the villains, the good guys versus the bad guys, overcoming personal obstacles, whatever other rote narrative you want to write, sports and the sports media tries to write it with each and every game. Without the media, I’m not sure those narratives persist as strongly and for as long as they have. And Sports Night shows a world where the people who help craft those narratives realize that maybe they’re not as real or true as we’ve been led to believe they are. It’s a struggle to deal with, even for those who are that close to the sports action, and despite its obnoxiousness, Sports Night handles those struggles in a compelling fashion. I think where Sports Night failed is that Sorkin’s idealistic nature doesn’t work in the realm of sports. In the political arena, it’s much easier to have characters give big stump speeches and make sweeping assertions about right and wrong, especially characters who are directly impacting the proceedings they’re talking about. But as much influence as the sports media might have on the audience’s interpretation of sports, Casey and Dan can’t really change the actions of the athletes they report on. They can hope to shape the reactions of the audience, but that’s about it. That leaves this series full of big, sweeping speeches that don’t really matter because they’re given to people who either A.) feel the same way or B.) are in no position to do anything about it. There are no stakes, just bluster. Sports Night might be moderately enjoyable (mostly for the performances), but its ideological slant don’t work in the world of sports.
Taking on the role of newbie viewer is Les Chappell. Les writes some longer-form television pieces over at A Helpless Compiler and book reviews at The Lesser of Two Equals. You can and should follow Les on Twitter. Les, what do you have for us?
Although I haven’t set foot inside one since I left college, there’s no place that has more import to me than a newsroom. I spent far more time that was healthy for my undergraduate degree within the dimly lit basement office of the Daily Cardinal, working on articles, copyediting page proofs and talking about every topic imaginable with the fifteen or so staffers who were gathered there at any given time. The office was better than a bar for conversations casual and serious (and not just because we had a cheaper supply of alcohol), a place where lifelong friendships could be formed over editing on the same night, a refuge from real-life craziness to the much more interesting flavor of craziness generated by deadlines and lack of sleep.
By that logic, I find it remarkable that more sitcoms haven’t taken advantage of the newsroom setting to generate a proper ensemble comedy. It’s a setting that constantly generates new stories by virtue of the field it is set in, and in a boon to set designers it features a centralized location where all the action could take place without ever needing to go outside. And given how many of the best comedies these days are about dysfunctional friends/coworkers turned surrogate family, journalism’s perfect for assembling an ensemble cast, being that it is what Hunter S. Thompson dubbed “a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits” that attracts every type of personality for their own reasons.
In the thin pool of sitcoms that have mined this environment, Newsradio is probably the famous – and arguably one of the best sitcoms of the last two decades overall – but it’s another show that really manages to capture the levels of excitement and investment working in the field brings. Sports Night, which ran two seasons on ABC from 1998 to 2000, took the world of sports journalism and found that its hot-button topics – sexual harassment by professional athletes, drug scandals, sportscaster bias toward favorite teams – held the seeds for plotlines both funny and serious. And most crucially, it’s a show that understands the stories being covered are far less important than the impact they have on the people covering them.
Sports Night is of course distinguished as the first television show created by Aaron Sorkin, whose reputation in the critical community seems to be as fast-changing as the camerawork and dialogue that have become his trademark in over a decade of writing/directing. His most famous series The West Wing garnered critical acclaim and went on to multiple award-winning seasons, and his most infamous series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would garner critical scorn and be euthanized after one season. I’m not fully versed on my Sorkin – I love “The American President” but have only seen a couple episodes of The West Wing (although those were the very well-regarded “Shibboleth” and “Two Cathedrals”), and the pilot of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which I liked fine but grimaced at how heavily they were trying to force a connection to Network.
The pilot of Sports Night falls outside of these two extremes – not as epic in scope as as The West Wing nor as preachy as Studio 60. Much like the latter show, Sports Night‘s focus is on the behind-the-scenes action of its titular program, a SportsCenter-esque nightly news and commentary show. The show is anchored by the team of Casey McCall (Peter Krause), a recent divorcee who’s grown disenchanted with the world of professional sports; and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), a laid-back type prone to hijacking staff meetings with tales of his “New York renaissance.” Day-to-day management of the show is handled by no-nonsense executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), backed up by overly analytical Jeremy Goodwin (Josh Malina) and bubbly Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd). Presiding over the chaos is managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume), who takes a hard-line with his staff when necessary but wards off the network with the force of a protective father.
I’d never seen an episode of Sports Night before this, so my initial view of the cast was knowing them from their more famous roles – Krause in Six Feet Under, Huffman in Desperate Housewives – so it came as a remarkable surprise to see just how well this cast works together. Krause and Charles in particular have an admirable chemistry reminiscent of Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford in Studio 60, two men who have worked together for so long they can go from serious to casual with each other at the drop of a hat. Lloyd and Malina are a bit over-the-top in their intensity but they’re also clearly passionate characters to begin with, and Huffman’s Dana is clearly used to the stress of making the trains run on time but loves every minute of it. Guillaume doesn’t have as much to do early on, but you can tell just how much influence he wields in that office – “Don’t take me on” he says in a matter-of-fact tone to a network representative trying to imply the increasingly monotone Casey should be removed, only to immediately tell Dana that she needs to resolve this before he makes it his problem.
It’s through this cast that the sports topics are filtered, and it’s their reactions that matter most. One of the posters I saw for this series claimed it was about sports “the same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement,” and that’s a very fair claim as coverage of the sports world is just an excuse for the characters to get fired up about their pet issues and personal problems. Casey’s disillusionment at the topics of the hour – an athlete’s assault charge at a strip club is quickly dismissed when he posts a $5,000 bail “with cash he had in his pockets,” the network is trying to dismiss feature coverage of a 41-year-old South African runner as not interesting to the younger demographic – is really just emblematic of the conflict driving him over not being able to be there for his son.
It’s a good thing that the characters are so entertaining to start out, because from a technical standpoint the pilot episode is riddled with inconsistencies. Being Sorkin’s first foray into doing a television series, coming from a background of theater and screenplay, it shows the growing pains of many techniques that would later become his trademarks. The “walk-and-talk” track shots developed by Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme are being meshed with scenes that were clearly filmed before a live studio audience, and the transitions are almost painful – one scene has Dana wandering though the full scope of the office, only to settle down in a static location with Natalie to interview Jeremy for a position. In many ways, it feels like they shot two versions of the pilot and attached the best parts of both, and if you look closely enough you can see the stitching.
And then there’s the laugh track. Oh, the laugh track. According to various sources, Sorkin conceived the show without one but it was added at the behest of ABC, as this was in the bleak days before the majority of comedies had evolved to emphasize dialogue and character over more obvious punchlines and sight gags. However, while the network forced the series to add a laugh track Sorkin didn’t bother to amend his scripts appropriately, and the series’ rapid pace and walk-and-talk style only rarely grants a pause to let the audience laughter in.
As a consequence, the laugh track here is just a failure. It’s so faint in so many areas I actually thought it was just background noise in the newsroom, and when it was actually noticeable the first time watching I was caught off-guard. I actually took a count of this during one viewing of the pilot, and found that a) the ratio of half-laughs to actual laughs is at least two to one, b) there are two sections where the series goes at least four minutes without even a chuckle, and c) the standing ovation at the end of a Jeremy speech feels like I accidentally changed the channel. At one point Dana points out she knows Casey’s joking, and he responds “I could tell by how you weren’t laughing when I said it” – a line I found rather ironic, considering the parts I laughed at the most didn’t have a single audience chuckle. I’ve been told that the laugh track was eventually phased out entirely by the second season premiere, and based on this sample I have no doubt the series is better for it.
(Brief aside: I realized while watching this episode I literally cannot remember the last time I watched a series with a laugh track – I’m pretty sure the last one was Spin City back in 2002.)
That rant aside, do these growing pains make Sports Night any less effective as a sitcom? Absolutely not. Despite their disconnect, each of the individual scenes is fairly strong – the opening scene has a wonderful rhythm as they put the program together and try to iron out exactly where Helsinki is, and a more static scene like a news conference is saved by the continual banter over a dropped kicker as Dana resigns herself to the fact that it’ll take a while to get to the next topic. And as laugh tracks go, this one is fairly easy to tune out, particularly as the dialogue picks up the pace and longer scenes keep the audience from drowning things out.
But really, once the episode moves into its climax, the energy level dispels remaining concerns. When the long-distance runner whom the network had dissuaded them from covering further sets a world record, the entire newsroom erupts into a burst of applause that immediately switches into action mode once Dana starts firing off orders to shape that night’s program in response. Even Casey can’t deny the energy – not only does he find an epic moment in sport worthy of waking his son up to witness, but manages to rekindle the charisma and energy needed to put together an enthusiastic program.
It’s that passion, that raw joy at seeing something special happen you can do a story about, that pushes the series over the edge from witty to powerful. I still don’t know why more sitcoms since haven’t tried to use the newsroom framework, but after watching the Sports Night pilot it might just be the bar’s been set a bit too high.
Conclusions on legacy: A series that works as a workplace sitcom, but not as one about or featuring sports