Sunday, June 02, 2013

TV Watch: Revisiting Aaron Sorkin's first TV series, the incandescent "Sports Night" (with notes on "Arrested Development")


On-air, without pants (don't ask -- it's too complicated to
explain): Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause)
CASEY [in the Sports Night co-anchors' office, with pants]: Hey, you want to get involved with this?
DAN [reading Forbes magazine with cover story "The Wealth of Cities"]: I so don't.
CASEY: Didn't you used to care about these things?
DAN: Yes.
CASEY: So it wasn't that long ago that you did?
DAN: Yeah.
CASEY: I mean, it was like yesterday.
DAN: Right.
CASEY: Now when I say "yesterday," I'm not speaking metaphorically. I mean it was yesterday. What happened to your values?
DAN: I find that maintaining them is a lot of work. I take a day off every now and then.
CASEY: You take a vacation from doing the right thing?
DAN: Yeah. I don't loot storefronts or anything, but once in a while, when I consider the effort it takes to diligently adhere to a moral compass, I take myself out of the lineup and rest for the next game.
CASEY: I swear, you could run for Congress and win.
DAN: Not with a goatee.
CASEY: Yeah, that's true.
-- from "Mary Pat Shelby," Episode 5
of Season 1 of Sports Night (4:53-5:25)
by Ken

I originally made the above transcript, or most of it, while I was whizzing through Season 1 and the Episodes 1-8 of Season 2 of Sports Night during my recent period of enforced inactivity. But then I set the chicken-scratched transcript aside, returning to it only now, only to discover that I couldn't make out the word in Dan's last line which turned out to be "goatee." And since I hadn't made any note of which episode this scene came from, I was stuck. In fact, I couldn't even remember what the great moral crisis was that Dan was declining to get involved with; I just thought this little scene was so spectacularly written, based on an incredibly precise understanding of the relationship between the Sports Night co-anchors, and acted by Peter Krause (Casey McCall) and (Dan Rydell).

The only thing to do was to hazard some educated guesses about which episodes it might have come from, and start recanvassing the DVDs. It proved to be anything but a burdensome labor. In fact, I had almost the opposite problem: Even though it had been only a couple of weeks since I just watched all these episodes, I found that every time I started one up again, I was unable to interrupt it, even once I was pretty sure it wasn't the one I was looking for.

Eventually I found the episode, and understood why I couldn't make out the word "goatee." I had forgotten that early on in this episode Dan was announcing to everyone on the show his intention to grow a goatee, and everyone was telling him what a terrible idea that was.

I was also reminded what the great issue at stake was. Sports Night's head man, managing editor Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume) had scored the great coup of getting a studio interview with a football player in the news for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, but after they promoted the daylights out of the story for a day, the player's handlers announced a nonnegotiable ground rule: No reference could be made to the girlfriend, Mary Pat Shelby. The handlers knew how hard it would be for the producers to say no, with their ratings bonanza on the line. Not surprisingly, however, there was resistance among the show staff -- though not with the involvement of Dan.

Meanwhile, though, executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) had sent her senior assistant, Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd), to the Meadowlands to do a pre-interview with the player, knowing his hostility to the idea of women in the locker room. As the Sports Night team eventually realizes, he wound up assaulting her. This changes everything, since Dana hasn't agreed not to mention the new incident. When she makes the case that they are after all a news organization and it would be humiliating for them not to break their own story, she takes it one step too far, arguing that Natalie wants her story told, prompting Dan to interrupt and tell Dana that she had him until that last point -- that it was quite clear to him that Natalie didn't want her story told. (At the time no one on the outside knows the identity of the woman the player was seen exposing himself to and manhandling.)

Which prompted this exchange:
CASEY: I thought you were taking a break from moral accountability.
DAN: I threw in one for nothing.
Dana subsequently negotiates a deal with the player's handlers, whereby Natalie will deny to one and all that anything improper happened in the locker room, in exchange for allowing the subject of Mary Pat Shelby to be discussed in the on-air interview. But eventually she comes to her senses and realizes that, much as Natalie doesn't want to have her career shattered by being dragged into the story, her story has to be told, and just before air time Dana cancels the interview, and tells the handlers and the player to leave. One of the handlers, Evans (Ray Wise), vents.
EVANS: You're all gonna be the laughingstock of broadcast news.
CASEY: We're pretty much used to that by now.
ANNOUNCEMENT: Three minutes to air.
DAN: Folks, I'm pretty sure I heard my boss ask you all to leave the building.
EVANS: This is a third-place show on a fourth-rate network.
DAN: Yeah, but that's all gonna change once I grow a goatee.
CASEY: He's just crazy enough to do it.
I haven't watched the Sports Night DVDs over the years, in good part because I had vivid recollections of running into technical troubles with the discs almost from the outset. As best I can tell from my recent re-watch of the first four discs, the first one really does have a defect that causes a skip in the pilot episode, but otherwise they seem to track OK. And the shows themselves! My goodness! You really have to watch them to appreciate the level of their brilliance, which is unflagging. Every episode is a "highlight reel" from start to finish.

It starts with the writing, of course. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Aaron Sorkin having the vision to see how much could be incorporated into a show about a nightly sports news broadcast, and nobody writes better for actors -- especially actors of the quality of these. There isn't anyone in the very large cast whose work seems to me anything less than spectacular.

In my re-re-watch today, I couldn't stop myself from looking once again at a scene in Episode 11, "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee," after Casey has appeared on The View and scored a great personal success. On the show he had the ladies of The View falling over one another to lavish praise on him for his appearance on the show, in particular his selection of ties. There's a comment about how sexy a man who can dress himself is.

Later in his office Casey is approached by a wardrobe-bearing young woman who diffidently asks if this is a good time. Anyone who knows Sorkin's next series, The West Wing, instantly recognizes Janel Moloney, who went on to make such an indelible impression as Josh Lyman's assistant, Donna Moss. She asks him if he knows her name, which of course he doesn't; we've established earlier in the episode that Dan knows everyone involved in the show, while Casey doesn't even know the names of most of the people who work on it. She introduces herself as Monica, the assistant wardrobe supervisor, and in a scene of astonishing delicacy and power rips into him for taking credit for dressing himself when in fact he has nothing to do with it -- it's all done by her boss, Maureen. He deserves all the other praise he receives, she says, but in the face of praise he didn't deserve, how hard would it have been to credit the person who was actually responsible for it, and how much would it have meant for Maureen to be acknowledged?

I went back and did one of my clumsy transcriptions.

CASEY is in his office sitting on the front edge of his desk contentedly watching a tape of his View appearance, including Starr Jones saying, "Well, I think you should know that a man who knows how to dress himself is a very sexy thing," and Casey replying, "Which is why so many of us are drawn to Carot Top." A young woman carrying assorted wardrobe items knocks on his open door. He shuts off the video.

MONICA: Excuse me, Mr. McCall?
CASY [gets up awkwardly and moves behind his desk, then sits down]: Yeah?
MONICA: I'm sorry, is this a bad time?
CASEY: For what?
MONICA: I'd like to ask you a question, but if you're preparing the show, if this is a bad time, I can come back . . . .
CASEY [looking down at his desk]: What's your question?
MONICA: Well, uh, what's my name?
CASEY [finally looking up, then at her]: What's your name?
CASEY [gets up]: Um. [Walking across the room] What are we doing right now?
MONICA [setting garments down carefully on a chair]: If this is a bad time, I can just come . . . .
CASEY: I'm sorry, I'm not very good at remembering names.
MONICA: Who was the number-two man on the Boston Red Sox staff in 1977?
CASEY [pausing, as if he doesn't want to answer]: It was Ferguson Jenkins.
MONICA [smiling slightly]: I'm the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC. I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for. Her name is Maureen, and she's been working here since the day you started.
CASEY [starting to shuffle back to his desk]: Well, I know Maureen.
MONICA : Can I ask you another question?
CASEY: I'm sorry I didn't know your name.
MONICA [holding out a striped tie]: Do you know what color this is?
CASEY [staring down at his desk again]: Well, it's gray.
MONICA : It's called gunmetal. Gray has more ivory, and gunmetal has more blue. [Without pausing, as she reaches for two shirts she was carrying and holds them up. ] Can you tell me which of these two shirts you should wear with it?
CASEY [now looking at her and the shirts]: Uh, I don't know.
MONICA : No, you don't. There's no reason why you should. You're not expected to know what shirt goes with what suit, or how a color in a necktie can pick up the color in your eyes. You're not expected to know what's going to clash with what Dan's wearing, or what pattern's going to bleed when Dave changes the lighting.

Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do, and all of it's deserved. When you go on a talk show and get complimented on something you didn't, how hard would it be to say, "That's not me, that's a woman named Maureen who's been working for us since the first day -- it's Maureen who dresses me every night, and without Maureen I wouldn't know gunmetal from a hole in the ground"? [Soft music comes up/] Do you have any idea what that would have meant to her? Do you have any idea how many times she would have played that tape for her husband and her kids? [CASEY looks down, abashed.]

I know, I know this is when it starts to get busy for you. [Heads back to the garments on the chair.] I hope I didn't take up too much of your time. [She continues fiddling with garments.] Please don't tell Maureen I spoke to you. She'd be pretty mad at me.
CASEY: I won't. Monica . . . .
[She leaves.]

Sports Night is also one of the most spectacularly well-directed series I've ever seen. Sorkin explained at the time that he didn't know how to "write for television," so he just wrote and trusted to fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme, the show's principal director, to turn it into television, which he did brilliantly. The show had a look and even a sound that remain unique.

The obvious question is, how has such a show -- as fine as anything that's ever been done for TV -- remained so obscure? One answer is probably that from the get-go it lost all the audience that assumed it was about sports, which it really isn't. Another answer, or substitute for an answer, is a reminder that it barely managed to remain on ABC's schedule for a second season, and failed to make the cut for a third. Looking back, this is mind-boggling. But the show's ratings were never robust, and even though some of the ABC programming execs reportedly admired it, there was nothing like the personal commitment that, say, sustained Seinfeld through it's ratings-rocky early seasons. The fact is that TV marketers seem to me notoriously awkward about knowing what there is to promote in their shows and promoting it to viewers who might be interested.


In which connection it's hard not to think of Arrested Development, which had the good and bad fortune to be put on the air by Fox. Good fortune because Fox has shown itself open to some genuinely innovative programming, bad fortune because the network has shown itself not only inept at promoting such shows but unwilling to stand by them. Nevertheless, Arrested Development managed to survive for three seasons.

Last weekend I happened to be at my friend Richard's upstate, and since he has Netflix, on Sunday when the 15 new episodes produced for Netflix went up, I got to watch the first. There was some dissension among the ranks at our viewing, but I thought it was just fine, and look forward to seeing the whole shebang, in some form or other. It struck me as a little weird when I read that Netflix's stock took a plunge because people haven't been singing universal hosannas for the new episodes.

I'm actually sitting on the DVDs of Arrested Development's three original seasons, ever since Amazon offered them as one of their daily "gold" specials. I remember how much pleasure those shows gave me when they were aired originally, and wonder if I'm apprehensive that they won't delight me as much on re-viewing. One of these days I'll screw up my courage. Sports Night sure hasn't disappointed.

By the way, Arrested Development fans, if you haven't seen the video of the 2011 New Yorker Festival's "Bluth Family Reunion," featuring almost the whole cast along with series co-creator and creative overseer Mitch Hurwitz (with co-creator Ron Howard appearing rather spectrally via what sounds like the world's cheapest cell phone), has recently reposted the whole thing. Watch it.



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