Sports Night: The Complete First Season

As it is in sports, television is a results oriented game. Numbers — especially very large numbers — matter. Success is often nothing more than a measure of who tallies up the most points. Skill, creativity and overall talent do not always add up to victory and, as all sports fans are aware, the better team does not necessarily come out on top. Television is rather similar, as many wonderful shows have been deemed failures when coming up short in the numbers game.

The cruel irony of two pursuits infused with immense individual and collective passion but leveled by the cold, uncaring judgment of raw data is obvious. It would seem, therefore, that the melding of art and sports would be a natural fit for dramatic interpretation. So thought Aaron Sorkin back in 1998 when his first television series debuted on ABC. Lasting only two seasons Sports Night had all of the ingredients for victory — a ridiculously talented team of writers, directors and actors — but was unable to translate what looked like a sure thing on paper to success out in the field.

The hypothetical vault that houses all of the brilliant but canceled television series’ is by now so overstuffed that to sort through and view these titles could take a lifetime. While audiences can never hope to make their way through this entire library of overlooked treasures, certain programs deserve special mention. These television shows may now be long gone and relegated to a shelf somewhere but home viewing and the DVD market make it possible to preserve and expand the reach of shows that went largely unseen.

The ABC comedy/drama Sports Night is one of these overlooked gems that failed to find wider success during its initial run. The series focuses on the daily battles of the cast and crew of a late night sports highlight show. Set in the fictional New York City studios of Continental Sports Channel, this SportsCenter-like show is co-anchored by Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause). They are a charmingly acerbic on-air duo whose passion for sports is leavened by equal measures of self-effacing humor and deep intelligence. Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) is the show’s talented and no-nonsense executive producer whose many tasks include keeping her star hosts focused and on script.

The CSC Sports Night production team is rounded out by Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), a young associate producer and Jeremy (Joshua Malina), a researcher and fellow (associate) producer. Keeping a distant and watchful eye over all of this daily chaos is Isaac (Robert Guillaume), the show’s seasoned managing editor.

While the show involves the world of sports and television programming the main focus of Sports Night is really on these six individual characters. The professionalism, confidence and aptitude they bring to their jobs are rarely carried over into their personal lives and that dichotomy and struggle is what is explored with deft observations and sly humor.

All of the elements of Sorkin’s unique creative DNA — rapid-fire dialogue, witty banter, romantic entanglements and the dramatic interplay of personal, corporate and social politics — are on full display in Sports Night. The later success Sorkin found with The West Wing is evident throughout this series and one sees how Sports Night proved an invaluable laboratory for the talented cast and crew.

While the most notable cast members, Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause, hit the big time with Desperate Housewives and Six Feet Under (respectively) this is truly an ensemble piece that would not work without the strength of all those involved. Bringing life and keeping pace with Sorkin’s quick-wit and sharp intelligence is not for amateurs and the entire cast brims with energy and talent.

The most obvious and immediate barrier for unfamiliar viewers may be the show’s milieu — the sports and entertainment news world. Whilst the setting may be less stately than the hallowed halls of The West Wing the political and human dramas of late-night sports television are just as electric and engaging as Sorkin’s most acclaimed prime-time work.

The extras included in this boxed set are fairly extensive (by today’s standards) and rather enjoyable. Among the offerings are: new interviews featuring creator Aaron Sorkin, director Thomas Schlamme and the cast and crew where they discuss the Sports Night legacy and trace the show’s trajectory from development through cancellation; a face-off between ESPN’s SportsCenter and CSC’s Sports Night where real-life counterparts at ESPN detail what the show got right and what is clearly made for television; a charming gag reel, and five episode commentaries featuring the Sports Night cast and crew.

Continuing with the industry vogue of cutting up and re-packaging already released DVD titles Sports Night: The Complete First Season comes to the marketplace in its third iteration. Shout Factory is clearly trying to scrape every last bit of material from this series by double dipping in this latest edition. It seems ridiculous to break up the wonderfully compiled Sports Night: The Complete Series 10th Anniversary Edition DVD set that was released only two years ago. An argument can be made that releasing Season One as a stand-alone set is more inviting to the casual viewer than committing to the entire two-season series. However, the move reads less as consumer consideration than it does of corporate cynicism and greed.

That said, whatever tactic works to draw more viewers to this overlooked series is welcome. Sports Night was a fun, intelligent series that navigated the tricky fields of drama and comedy with style and charm.

RATING 7 / 10