Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sports Night

Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night is sheer bliss.

The series ran on ABC for two years from 1998-2000. Its ratings were abysmal, and if you loved the show, like I did, you took it personally. ("What's wrong with people?"). Sorkin, meanwhile, packed up and moved on to create The West Wing.

After a brief syndication stint on Comedy Central, Sports Night appeared on DVD a couple of years ago. That weekend, I stayed indoors, shades drawn, take-out pizza menu within reach, and watched all 45 episodes while my dog whined at the foot of the bed, stir-crazy.

Simply put, Sorkin writes music. His dialogue is rhythmic and syncopated, as if jazz musicians were trading fours. Gaps and pauses take on the quality of suspended chords, searching for resolution. Characters toss out riffs, which are then batted about, repeated, played with, transformed. Timing becomes paramount. The ensemble works in harmony. Martin Sheen, talking about The West Wing, warned that even the tiniest improvisation on Sorkin's written word was disastrous because it immediately undermined Sorkin's mathematically precise writing. Try listening to Sorkin-speak with your eyes closed — it sounds composed.

Here's the other reason I love Sports Night: God, I miss Howard Hawks. The last great Hawks movie was El Dorado in 1967, and thirty years later, his ghost unconsciously haunts Sports Night. The show is Hawksian to a fault: (1) strong and charismatic female characters; (2) people whose notions of self-image and mutual respect are completely bound up in what they do for a living; (3) the importance of professionalism ("Are you good enough?" is a question that pops up in almost every Hawks movie); (4) males who assume a facade of equanimity and understatement, unable to speak what's really in their hearts; and finally, (5) a sense of humor that emerges not through gags but by way of natural, easy, everyday back-and-forth that reveals volumes about the characters and who they are. It's all there in Sports Night, by the shovelful.

I'm an irredeemable sports idiot. To me, it's like rocket science — a world I know nothing about and never will. "It's about sports," goes the tagline for this show, "The same way that Charlie's Angels was about law enforcement."

And why am I doing this post today? Because of good news: Sorkin is returning to television next fall with a behind-the-scenes show about an SNL-like late-night comedy series. (Thanks, Mike Slagor, for the tip-off).


Blogger phil said...

...i was wondering when you'd get around to posting about Sorkin...

last night i had a little "sports night" night...sorkin's work just sings for me...the musical analogy is dead on -- he pokes at themes throughout an episode and then gathers them to a swelling crescendo that just knocks the wind out of you...

shakespeare of our time, i tell you. and i'll defend that statement to anyone.

October 20, 2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Phil, Not sure you've seen the IMDB page for the show, but it has a collection of trivia.
I also find it interesting that the even though the first season has a laugh track, you seldom hear it. (Here's a show that's a fantastic comedy but not that laugh-out-loud funny).
Apparently, there was a line in a Family Guy episode that went something like "Ah, I get Sports Night now--it's too good to be funny."

October 20, 2005 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Oh, man, that is that the best news I've heard in weeks. I'm thrilled to see that Tommy Schlamme is involved *and* that it'll be a one-hour drama/comedy.

I'm now, like, five episodes away from finishing the Sorkin-scripted West Wing episodes, and the thought of hearing someone else's dialogue coming out of his characters' mouths is really depressing. One thing I've really appreciated in the first four seasons of the show is Sorkin's obvious love for the White House speechwriters. He finds great drama in the crafting of language -- and I mean that literally. Toby, Sam, and Will actually discuss amongst themselves (and with great pride and enthusiasm) the rhythms of speech. Who beside Sorkin would even be capable of inventing those scenes, let alone making them compelling television.

October 20, 2005 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Girish, I don't mean to put you on the spot, but I'd love to see what you would come up with for a Sports Night- or Sorkin-inspired drawing. (I hope your hands aren't bothering you too badly these days.)

October 20, 2005 4:18 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

It's nice to know one isn't alone in the world. When a show gets cancelled or struggles to find an audience and you love it (and this happens to me much, much too often), you wonder what on Earth is going on. Why haven't the masses or at least a big enough chunk of the masses latched on to what has quickly become so important to you? Sports Night, much like Freaks and Geeks or, currently, the ratings challenged Veronica Mars, is a show I champion to everyone I can find. Watch the DVDs. Rent them. Sit down with me and watch them if that's the only way this will happen. Even when I enjoy the West Wing (which is not always a sure thing, but often enough), all it makes me think of is how I wish Sports Night was still on the air.

October 20, 2005 4:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren, the tendonitis in my hands is slowly getting better. But my hands are still pretty ravaged and will be for a while. (I can't use a regular computer keyboard anymore, only the laptop. Thankfully, the iBook keys are extra-low impact).

I've been so deluged with midterm grading this week that I never even thought about doing a drawing for Sports Night. But I have been drawing, even if for just fifteen minutes or a half-hour, every day.

You know, I've seen just the first two seasons of The West Wing on DVD, and look forward to the rest of the Sorkin-penned episodes. You mentioned Will. Is he the Malina character? I haven't encountered him on the show yet.

October 20, 2005 8:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tim, thanks for the Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars recommendations; I've seen neither.
And I liked your photo-essay on Elizabethtown that Ben linked to. :-)

October 20, 2005 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I also enjoyed Sports Night. (Felicity Huffman crush) Sorkin will probably be best remembered for writing the line, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth", from A Few Good Men.

October 20, 2005 9:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Way off-topic but check out this amazing interview with Jonathan Lethem that Alex links to.

October 21, 2005 12:17 AM  
Blogger phil said...

i think most people who know the line from A Few Good Men don't know that Sorkin wrote it...he'll probably be better remembered as the guy who we had to tell everyone that he wrote that line so they know who the hell we're raving about...

girish -- Will is Malina's character, and he is, of course, excellent. though i miss him as Jeremy. but Will Bailey comes through with great moments too; i just wish Sorkin hadn't exited WW as Malina was coming in...Will seemed like an interesting character.

October 21, 2005 11:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Phil, yeah--great acting on the show, down to the last woman and man. I don't know if you're into The Larry Sanders Show (amazing) but Josh Malina plays a slimy TV exec in one episode, and he's great. Sabrina Lloyd (Natalie) is the lead in the new Hal Hartley movie, The Girl From Monday. I think some of my favorite Sports Night scenes are the ones between William Macy and Felicity Huffman. Wish Josh Charles would do some movies; Dan is probably the Sports Night character I like best.

October 21, 2005 11:16 AM  
Blogger phil said...

i used to be a Casey man, myself, but i've discovered the wonder that is Dan...Josh Charles is really perfect in that role...his delivery of dialogue is not simply flawless, but somehow both creative and comfortable...he inhabits that role.

felicity huffman explodes on screen in sports the Sorkin written scripts, she looks like she's improving, her choices are so unexpected, but they become the quirky, fascinating pieces of character that build Dana.

October 21, 2005 11:46 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

You're right, Girish. That Lethem piece is pretty great. (Confession: Lethem's status as an obsessive Mets fan makes me feel like a kindred spirit.) Especially, on the same day as that piece on Marcus v. Franzen at Slate.

October 21, 2005 12:44 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Girish, when I saw the title of this post I imagined that it would be about sitting down in front of an NFL or baseball game with your parents, staring at the screen for a few minutes, and then popping in a Howard Hawks movie to finish off the evening.

I see that I was about 17% right. I just might have to check out this Sports Night.

October 21, 2005 7:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rob, my parents really dig this show. You know that old bit about the average human talking speed being 110 words per minute and bursts of Hawks' His Girl Friday averaging 240 words per minute? Sports Night is sort of the same way (one more Hawksian connection). So, my parents will only watch it with the subtitles on.
And then one day my mom says to me, apropos of nothing, "Girish, you can buy us the Sports Night DVD set if you like." How's that for a subtle hint?

October 21, 2005 7:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tim, thanks for the link.
For no reason, Slate's off my radar--I always forget to check it; just added it to my bookmarks.

October 21, 2005 8:15 PM  

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