The first television collaboration between writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, Sports Night almost serves as a primer for their future series, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. All the usual elements of a Sorkin series are here: rapid-fire dialogue, his classic walk-and-talks, and stories with a political bent. Unfortunately, much of the smugness and heavy handedness characteristic to Sorkin’s writing is also present.
Sports Night focuses on the staff of an ESPN SportsCenter-like program. While rarely leaving the studio setting, the program delves into the personal and professional lives of its characters and manages to pack quite a bit of dialogue and storyline into a half-hour sitcom. This is where the Sorkin/Schlamme collaboration shines.
Although occasionally overdone, Sorkin’s now-famous dialogue is often smart, quick-witted, and funny and Schlamme’s direction displays technical innovations that are fairly common by today’s standards, but ten years ago were just beginning to be used in television. One of the special features offers a fascinating look into the specifics of the camera work and editing that made the series look the way it did.
Casey (Peter Krause) and Dan (Josh Charles) are the co-anchors of the titular program and the cast is rounded out by Dana (Felicity Huffman), their producer, Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), her assistant, Jeremy (Joshua Malina), a newly-hired researcher, and Isaac (Robert Guillaume), their boss. The cast is uniformly very good and they manage to infuse a lot of personality into such dense scripts, but it is Guillaume that stands out as the most natural member of the cast. Having suffered a stroke in the first season (a storyline that was written into the series after his real-life collapse on set), Guillaume continued to play his character with a great deal of intelligence and strength.
The biggest problem with Sports Night is its portrayal of women and gender politics. The series goes out of its way to tell the audience how progressive it is, particularly in its depiction of women in the workplace. Sure, Dana is in charge of running the show and Natalie is her immediate backup, but they are frequently shown to have neuroses that leave them distracted, unreasonable, and overly emotional. Jeremy, Natalie’s subordinate, as well as her boyfriend, is almost always depicted as being much more rational and in control than she is. The fact that Dana and Natalie are obviously intelligent and good at their jobs is almost in spite of their emotional reactions.
While the male characters on the show are given quirks and personal issues to deal with and work through, often they are more serious problems and the characters are less likely to react flustered or erratic in dealing with them. Again, a capable cast elevates much of the material that has a tendency to sometimes be overwritten and smug, yet it is difficult to ignore Sorkin’s propensity to write women in positions of power as highly emotional and frequently unprofessional.
One of Sports Night’s successes was the way in which it was able to create such a believable television studio environment. In fact, the series essentially built a fully functioning studio, complete with control rooms and offices, to film more realistically. Sorkin’s walk-and-talks would have been impossible to achieve without having the room afforded by such a full set. A nice bit of trivia from the bonus features explains that originally, the show had a studio audience. The limits of filming in such a large space with an audience – that would essentially be unable to see all that was going on – eventually convinced the network to lose the audience, and in turn, the series gained even more room in which to film.
The bonus features include eight commentary tracks, some behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews, and a completely pointless and unfunny gag reel. The conversation with Sorkin and Schlamme offers quite a bit of information into the genesis of the show and the ways in which Sorkin’s second series, The West Wing affected production in Sports Night’s second season.
There are also many amusing comments from cast and crew throughout the special features on the strange and out-of-place laugh track inserted somewhat intermittently throughout the series. For fans of the series, the 10th anniversary set will surely please, but new viewers may find it to be less than the progressive show it set out to be.