Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night

The cast of ABC's Sports Night
When I originally conceived of this blog, I knew I would make this post.  Again, the vision here is for me to tell you about things that get me excited and stirred up, especially in the arts.  And as I have been rewatching this series recently on DVD, I knew it would be on this blog.  What I didn’t know is that I would, by the time I sat down to write, develop a love/hate relationship with this series, instead of just a…um…love relationship.

In the world of film and television, I don’t typically follow actors.  There are certainly actors I like, but rarely is a specific performer’s presence enough to draw me to a work.  There are three things I pay attention to far more than I do acting–the writing, the directing, and the story.  

Story is maybe the most important.  I can’t define what kind of stories I’m drawn to–I love all sorts of stories.  I believe that story is one of the main ways that my generation and those younger than me learn.  Tell us something factually, and we may not learn or embrace it.  Tell us in a good story, and the point creeps in the back door and we grow.  If there is a truly intriguing story being told, it doesn’t matter to me if I’ve never heard of anyone associated with it–or even if it’s in English.  My all-time favorite television show (which I’m sure will get an entry come January), Lost, is a good example–I knew not a single actor and didn’t care much for the creator’s previous work when that was introduced.  But before the pilot was aired, I read an interview with one of the show’s writers, and what he said (some of which never actually played out in the show the way he hinted) grabbed me enough that I watched the show and haven’t missed a minute since.

Director is maybe the least important.  There are certain directors I like a lot, but if their new project is empty, or inappropriate, I can skip it without a second thought.

Writers fall pretty close to story in importance.  A good writer, to me, is one who can do several things at once.  He (or she) can draw characters that I relate to and want to see more of.  He can tell a compelling story, one whose story points aren’t obvious from a mile away, and even though it may be some of what we’ve all seen before, a good writer manages to bring a freshness to old storylines or themes.  But the big one–the one I’m the most a sucker for–is the writer who can do something original with language.  My favorite writers in film and television all do this.  They bring an original voice, like Joss Whedon, whose first show (let’s not mention the name right now…) invented whole new ways of talking–really, there are scholarly essays about that very thing.  Or, they bring a since of rhythm and history.  Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls is a good example of this.  This is a show you are not allowed to knock until you’ve given it a fair shot.  Sure, it’s about a mother and daughter and their relationships and blah blah blah, but her scripts were a good 20 pages longer than scripts for other hour-longs, and full of literary and cultural references that kept my head working as I watched.

Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin.  He worked as a playwright and screenwriter first, penning films like A Few Good Men.  Then he moved over onto TV for awhile, creating and penning three TV series–Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  I discovered, as most people did, The West Wing first, and was struck by its wit, passion, and desire to show goodness in its characters.  I felt smarter watching that show, even when I didn’t agree with it–and to feel smarter watching TV is a rare thing indeed.

All 3 of Sorkin’s TV ventures have the same basic premise and theme–we watch people who work in the public eye, getting a behind-the-scenes look into their lives and especially their work.  TWW took place behind the scenes at the White House, Studio 60 (by far the worst of the three) at an SNL-style sketch comedy show, and Sports Night at a Sports Center style TV broadcast.  The styles overlap, with deep emotion contrasted with humorous moments and a lot of movement–it was Sorkin’s shows that developed what is now known, in TV, as the “walk and talk”, featuring characters talking rapidly about something as they walk down hallways.  (I love this, by the way.)

Thematically, they cover overlapping areas–politics, morality, sexual politics, creativity–but are all built on one basic idea–all three of Sorkin’s shows are full of characters who love their work, and are basically very good people, trying to do a good thing and contribute to society.  That can be inspiring, if not, at times, heavy-handed and a bit deceptive, as all three of these shows subscribe to a very optimistic humanism (even though God does enter into all three shows).  Sorkin believes–this may be his biggest core belief, at least the basic core belief of these three shows–that good people trying their best will be the main thing that changes the world for the better.  A quote from Margaret Mead pops up, I believe, more than once in the Sorkin world: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

While I have to strongly disagree with this man-centered sentiment, it is deeply refreshing to me to see a show where the characters actually wrestle with their choices, trying to make moral decisions and make a difference in the world.  Not many other television shows in history fit that description, and I doubt any have been so consistently inspiring.

Let’s talk about Sports Night (heretofore referred to as SN so I don’t have to keep switching to italics.)  It aired in the late 90s on ABC for two ratings-challenged seasons.  Critics loved it.  It concerns the nighttime sports show “CSC” at a fictional network.  Numerous well-known (in television, at least) actors got their big break here.  The main characters are the two anchors, Dan (the amazing Josh Charles, recognizable from Dead Poets Society and what happened to this guy?) and Casey (Peter Krause, better known for Six Feet Under, and now…well, shudder), their producer Dana (Felicity Huffman of…well, shudder), her assistant Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), the new guy Jeremy (Joshua Malina, who also played Will on TWW), and everyone’s boss, Isaac (played by Robert Guillaume, he of Benson and Rafiki fame.)

It’s on this show that Sorkin develops his television voice.  This was mistakenly billed as a sitcom, and though does have its share of Sorkin-humor, the forced laugh track is painful, and the show should be approached more as a short drama–22 minutes in the world of these characters and the issues they face.

If you’re going to give this a try, you should really start with Disc 1.  And maybe stop there.  (More on that later.)  The first handful of episodes are genius both in style and content.  You can hear Sorkin starting to develop his rhythm–short lines, repetition of short lines, new short lines, leading to long lines.  And the stories are almost all moving.

In the pilot, newly-divorced Casey is frustrated with his job, especially at the constant reports of rich athletes getting busted for drugs or spouse abuse.  He has a young son, and he’s worried that his son’s heroes are all going to be thugs.  An incident with a South African man, one who was beaten and abused under Apartheid, running a marathon brings Casey some hope.

The second episode concerns Dan’s refusal to apologize for a magazine interview in which he implies that he is open to the legalization of marijuana, and the episode builds to a deeply emotional climax.

Episode 3 focuses on Jeremy’s first on-the-field assignment, to do a piece on a hunting and fishing show, and his monologue to Dana and Isaac about the trip is probably the main reason I am personally opposed to most hunting.  I’m not sure even that anyone can discuss the issue with me until they’ve seen the episode, or at least the monologue, which starts a few minutes in this clip:

Episode 4’s storyline is split between a comic plot about the illegality of singing “Happy Birthday” in public (it’s copyrighted material), and a look at the possible romantic tension between Dana and Casey, a story that becomes a main focus of the show later in the season.

Episode 5 & 6 are a two-parter that really present a moral quagmire, as something traumatic happens to Natalie when doing a pre-interview with a controversial football star.  Questions of journalistic integrity and responsibility are brought to light, especially examining the question “How does a news organization handle it when the news is happening to one of their own family?”

Episode 7 is the first weak one, although it has its moments.  It is built around the device of Jeremy writing a letter to his deaf sister, a device that doesn’t quite work out.  I also find the ending to this episode offensive personally.

Episode 8, the last one on the disc, is about a news broadcast where nothing seems to go right.

Anyway, these are a great set of episodes, and as I rewatch the show’s first season, I realize that, in my opinion, it never quite tops itself after these eight, the show getting a little bogged down in romantic twists and turns from this point on.  The writing, and the way Sorkin uses the characters to wrestle with different ideas, inspired me to even develop my own show (more as an exercise than anything else), which I called Home Base and some of you have read episodes of.

So I can highly recommend you watch Disc 1 of Sports Night.  Now onto the “hate” part of the “love/hate relationship.”  I have never felt compelled to own SN, and in rewatching these episodes there are a couple of reasons why you won’t find it on my shelf, next to the four Sorkin seasons of The West Wing that I own.  One is the aforementioned shift in focus to romantic subplots.  The other, I think, is that as Sorkin figures out that he can write with rhythm, he begins to rely on the rhythms that he is developing a little too heavily.

We just finished watching Disc 2, and after each episode, Ira and I would find ourselves kind of making fun of the way he talked.  Let’s say you and I are having a conversation, and I want to tell you that SN has a rhythm.  In Sports Night world, our conversation would go like this, most of it spoken very quickly.:

Me: Hey, did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Did I ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

Me: Yes.  (slower) Did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Huh.

Me: Huh, what?

You: Did I ever notice?

Me: Yes.

You: That Sports Night has a rhythm.

Me: Yes.

You: I guess you did.

Me: I did what?

You: Notice.

Me: That Sports Night has a rhythm?  I did.

You: Well, I don’t know that I ever noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice?

You: I didn’t notice.  I have never noticed this rhythm.

Me: Oh, there’s a rhythm.

You: There’s a rhythm?

Me: There’s a rhythm.  You know how I know?

You: How do you know?

Me: I know because…Sports Night has a rhythm.

You: Well I never noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice.

You : I didn’t.  Except…

Me: Except?

You: I didn’t notice, except that I totally noticed!

And so on…Some of these episodes feel like that conversation happens for about eighteen minutes, and then there are four minutes of emotional plot to explain how Dan really notices the sense of rhythm because of something that happened to his mother when he was eight.  Or something…

So that’s my complaint.  By the time he got around to The West Wing, Sorkin had definitely stopped writing rhythm for rhythm’s sake and was using his style to further the story instead of being cutesy.

But that complaint aside, Sports Night, especially that first disc, is a breath of fresh air, and you should check it out.

You should check it out?

You should.


3 responses to “Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night

  1. From an academic standpoint, I am completely fascinated by the undeniable connection between Sorkin’s writings and David Mamet.

    I can imagine a young, acting Aaron Sorkin being completely transformed, as many theatre types were, by the budding playwright David Mamet in the early 70’s. I can see him watching or hearing about Sexual Perversity in Chicago or American Buffalo and deciding to give up the whole acting thing and dedicate his life to writing. I mean, heck, if I was there, I probably would’ve, too. Glengarry Glen Gloss, Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, was probably still fresh on Sorkin’s mind by the time he squeaked out his first play a few years later.

    Like a young jazz saxophonist learning Bird’s licks, you can see Sorkin channeling Mamet in his early work and even beyond. To your point, the short, choppy, rhythmic, repetitive lines that so characterize Sorkin are directly from Mamet’s playbook (who borrowed them from Pinter, but that’s another topic). For example, here’s an excerpt from a piece, courtesy Wikipedia:

    Moss: No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this [Pause]

    Aaronow: Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…

    Moss: No, we’re just…

    Aaronow :We’re just “talking” about it.

    Moss: We’re just speaking about it. [Pause] As an idea.

    Aaronow: As an idea.

    Moss :Yes.

    Aaronow: We’re not actually talking about it.

    Moss: No.

    Aaronow: Talking about it as a…

    Moss: No.

    Aaronow: As a robbery.

    Moss: As a “robbery”? No.

    Sound familiar? This is from Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and it is virtually interchangeable with most Sorkinian dialogue. He just hadn’t mastered disguising it until he got to The West Wing.

    Even the “behind-the-scenes” kind of approach is Mamet’s. Nowhere is this more evident than in a play like Speed-the-Plow. One of my favorite Mamet plays. I mention it, too, because I just saw it on Broadway, and if anyone reading this gets a chance to see it, you should. It’s fantastic. But I digress.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not by any means bashing Sorkin. In fact, I’m a huge fan of all the shows you mentioned. I even really liked Studio 60. I’m just really interested in how Sorkin, whose plays are actually nothing like his tv work or Mamet’s work, transformed the tv medium by borrowing, to put it lightly, from one of American’s greatest playwrights, whose films are nothing like his plays even when they’re adapted from his plays. Was that a run-on? Oh well, you get the point.

    Besides, my degrees are in theatre. I’m completely ruined, and I can’t help it.

  2. It’s funny, when I was writing this last night I almost mentioned the Mamet connection, though I don’t know nearly as much about it as Sammy Ray. Wish I could see Speed-the-Plow. Mamet lives just down the road from us in Vermont…

    I think Studio 60 failed because a. it never could settle on a mood or style (drama? romantic comedy?) and b. too much of the writing felt like Sorkin purging his ghosts (trying to get back at Kristin Chenoweth for breaking up with him?)

  3. That’s what I liked about the West Wing, it stayed true to its style to the end. Season 1 episode 1 is just as good as the last show. Characters came and went, but the tone never changed, it was the same show. West Wing was something you could depend on, unlike politicians today. BTW I have extra copies of the first 4 seasons on DVD for sale, if interested contact me at my email steveo250k@yahoo.com or through my webpage at http://o-shining-see.com. Great blog. I always told my wife we should look into the writers of our favorite shows to decide which shows totry in the new seasons.

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