Saturday, June 29, 2013

TV Watch: I'm going to try again, but I still won't be able to communicate the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night"


JEREMY [Joshua Molina]: Not fitting in is how qualified people lose jobs.
ISAAC [Robert Guillaume]: Yeah, but a lot of the time it's how they end up working here. . . . It's taken me a lot of years, but I've come around to this: If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people; and if you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you. . . . You fit in on your own time. When you come to work for me, you show up to play.
-- from "The Hungry and the Hunted,"
Season 1, Episode 3, of Sports Night
by Ken

As I wrote a few weeks ago, one of the things I started looking at during my recent "holiday" from work was the DVDs of the astounding 1998-2000 TV comedy Sports Night, of which Aaron Sorkin was the creator (his first TV series), the nearly exclusive writer, and one of the executive producers. I remembered the show being out-of-this-world good. On re-viewing, I was in a continuous state of mind embogglement. When I finally zipped through the last four or five episodes of Season 2, and realized I had miscounted and there were no more episodes to watch, I was even angrier than ever, not to mention more despondent, that there were only two seasons, 45 episodes to watch.

Sports Night, to back up a bit, was a third-place 11pm-nightly cable sports-news show on CSC, a sports cable network owned by Continental Corp., whose tycoon owner had lured Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume) out of a planned retirement, following an illustrious journalism career, to create and run the show. The regular cast included anchoring-and-writing partners Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), senior associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd), and assistant producer Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina), plus a battery of control-room virtual regulars, and a host of memorable recurring and one- or two-shot characters. (Before she was House's Dr. Cuddy, Lisa Edelstein did two terrific episodes as Dan's nemesis, sports newscaster Bobbi Bernstein.)

Since that previous post I've been despondent about how little justice I did to the show in trying to communicate its dazzlingness -- brilliant writing, uniformly brilliant cast (down to the smallest roles -- and a spectacular ensemble), brilliant direction (with the look and feel set by Thomas Schlamme, also an executive producer, who later collaborated with Sorkin on The West Wing and a show even more unjustly unappreciated than Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), all-around brilliant production work (including brilliant music by ABC's amazingly inventive jack-of-all-musical modes W. G. Snuffy Walden).

But none of that means anything if you don't actually see the shows. What's worse, although I've mentioned them in the past, this time I didn't call attention to the show's achievement in capturing three of the most compelling and heartbreaking romantic relationships I've seen on any screen in any form, those of --

SN assistant producer Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina) and senior associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd)

Continental Corp. analyst Rebecca Wells (recurring guest star Teri Polo) and SN co-anchor/writer Dan Rydell (Josh Charles)

SN co-anchor/writer Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman)

I found all three every bit as powerful in the re-watch, and was even more impressed by the careful delineation of the effects of the failures of all three; after a breakup, the feelings don't necessarily stop. (In fairness, I should note that in what turned out to be the final episode, it appeared that Natalie and Jeremy were going to get back together, and maybe also Dan and Rebecca, who had suddenly returned from the West Coast.) This time through I was also more compelled than before by the relationship that was never meant to be, between Dana and hot-shot lawyer Gordon (the best thing I've seen Ted McGinley do, especially noteworthy in his prickly interactions with a jealous Casey).

Incredibly too, I made no mention of the way Sorkin incorporated the stroke suffered during the first season by Robert Guillaume, who played Sports Night's boss, managing editor Isaac Jaffee. The news of Isaac's stroke became the final blow in an amazing episode called "Eli's Coming," in which Dan's misunderstanding of the Isaac had already been under enormous pressure from corporate parent Continental Corp to slash costs and make the show softer. With him out of commission, the hugely increased pressure fell on Dana. Nor did the pressure subside when Isaac returned. A happy consequence -- for viewers if not for the Sports Night crew, at least initially -- was Isaac's hiring of a consultant in Season 2, which meant a clutch of dazzling episodes for William H. Macy (Felicity Huffman's real-life husband, of course).

In the earlier post, I did transcribe a whole little scene from Episode 11 of Season 1, "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee," one of the most remarkable episodes of a series that was hardly ever less than remarkable. It's a scene in which Casey, lost in self-congratulation over a triumphant appearance on The View, is confronted by "the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Sports Night as well as two other shows here at CSC" for having accepted credit on the show for dressing himself so sharply. The young woman, whose name Casey doesn't know (it turns out to be Monica), tries to make him understand how easily he could have given proper credit to her boss. The role of Monica was a one-shot appearance by the future Donna Moss of West Wing, Janel Moloney, and it never even occurred to me that I might be able to find a picture from this scene.

I'm not going to rehash the whole scene, though if you're inclined, you'll find it in the original post. Here's just the bit related to the picture:
MONICA: "Can you tell me which of these two
shirts you should wear with [the gunmetal tie]?"

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.
In case you haven't gotten the idea, Aaron Sorkin is not just a brilliant writer, he's a brilliant writer for actors. And he also seems to have a thing about working with really terrific actors. I wish I could show you what Janel Moloney did with that extraordinary little set piece. I was about to say "written by Sorkin," and I assume it was, but the credit for the writing credit for the episode is Sorkin plus Matt Tarses, David Walpert, and Bill Wrubel.)


A number of times I found myself going back through episodes I'd already re-watched. And in more than one case when I was trying to track down the source episode for a remembered scene or plot line, I started picking out those that seemed "possibles" based on the brief plot synopses but was slowed down immeasurably when I found myself unable to stop an episode once I'd started it, even when it became clear that it wasn't the one I was looking for. There are episodes that in the re-watch I re-watched two, three, four, or more times.

And one scene in particular has been haunting me. It's from Episode 3, "The Hungry and the Hunted" (the writing is credited to Sorkin alone), and in it Jeremy, whom we saw being interviewed and hired for his assistant-producer job in the pilot episode, has gotten "the call" -- Isaac and Dana are sending him out to produce his first field assignment: a hunting segment in the Adirondacks. When he returns, Natalie has seen the edited footage, which looks fine, and he claims that everything went fine. But Isaac already knows that something happened, something bad enough to have required his being taken to the hospital.

Isaac "invites" Jeremy to join him and Dana in his office, and finally drags the story out of him. (Happily, I didn't have to transcribe this; I found the episode script online.)
JEREMY: We shot a deer. In the woods near Lake Mattatuck on the second day. There was a special vest they had me wear so that they could distinguish me from things they wanted to shoot, and I was pretty grateful for that. Almost the whole day had gone by and we hadn't gotten anything. Eddie was getting frustrated; Bob Shoemaker was getting embarrassed.

My camera guy needed to reload, so I told everybody to take a ten-minute break. There was a stream nearby, and I walked over with this care package Natalie made me. I sat down, and when I looked up, I saw three of them: small, bigger, biggest. Recognizable to any species on the face of the planet as a child, a mother, and a father. Now, the trick in shooting deer is you gotta get 'em out in the open. And it's tough with deer, 'cause these are clever, cagey animals with an intuitive sense of danger. You know what you have to do to get a deer out in the open? You hold out a Twinkie. That animal clopped up to me like we were at a party. She seemed to be pretty interested in the Twinkie, so I gave it to her. Looking back, she'd have been better off if I'd given her the damn vest.

And Bob kind of screamed at me in a whisper, "Move away!" The camera had been reloaded, and it looked like the day wasn't gonna be a washout after all. So I backed away, a couple of steps at a time, and I closed my eyes when I heard the shot. Look, I know these are animals and they don't play bridge and go to the prom, but you can't tell me that the little one didn't know who his mother was. That's gotta mean something. And later, at the hospital, Bob Shoemaker was telling me about the nobility and tradition of hunting and how it related to the Native American Indians, and I nodded and I said that was interesting, while I was thinking about what a load of crap it was.

Hunting was part of Indian culture -- it was food and it was clothes and it was shelter. They sang and danced and offered prayers to the gods for a successful hunt so that they could survive just one more unimaginably brutal winter. The things they had to kill held the highest place of respect for them, and to kill for fun was a sin. And they knew the gods wouldn't be so generous next time. What we did wasn't food and it wasn't shelter and it sure wasn't sports. It was just mean.
My first reaction when the episode first aired in October 1998 was (and is): Wow! My second reaction was (and is): Can you imagine what it must be like to be an actor in a series and get your script and in it see something like this written for you?

What I didn't remember so well was the rest of the scene. Watching it again (and then again), it blew me away.
ISAAC: Jeremy, why didn't you tell us how you felt about hunting when we gave you this?
JEREMY: Because you told me you spoke to Mark Sabath at USA Today.
ISAAC: Yeah, but what --
JEREMY: In fact, I know you must have spoken to him before you ever hired me.
ISAAC: Of course I did. I also spoke to Dave Heller at the Free Press and Tom Monahan at the Sacramento Bee.
JEREMY: And they all said pretty much the same thing.
ISAAC: Yes. They all said that Jeremy Goodwin was a bright guy with a world-class understanding of popular sports, but that he didn't quite fit in and there was little chance that he'd advance in their organization.
JEREMY: Due respect, Mr. Jaffee, but I have $80,000 in college loans to pay back. My instincts told me to shut the hell up and do what I was told.
ISAAC: Your instincts were wrong.
JEREMY: Not fitting in is how qualified people lose jobs.
ISAAC: Yeah, but a lot of the time it's how they end up working here. Now, you had an obligation to tell us how you felt. Partly because I don't like getting a phone call saying I've put one of my people in the hospital. But mostly because if you feel that strongly about something, you have a responsibility to try and change my mind. Did you think I would fire you simply because you made a convincing argument?

It's taken me a lot of years, but I've come around to this: If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people; and if you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you. I'm an awfully smart man and Mark Sabath is an idiot. He had you and he blew it. You're gonna do great here. But you gotta trust us. You fit in on your own time. When you come to work for me, you show up to play.

I'm going home. You don't know us very well. So if it's hard trusting us at the beginning, maybe it'll help to know that we trust you. Good night. [ISAAC exits.]
Of course you still need to see it. On-screen it's just words. But entrust Sorkin's words to the care of actors of the caliber he always seems to work with, and . . . well, wow!

You could see in a lot of the critical response to the first season of Sorkin's current show, for HBO, The Newsroom, that a lot of people who pay lip service to Sorkin's genius don't really mean it, or at least don't really understand wherein that genius lies. Often, for example, they're people who saw West Wing as a roman à clef about White House life, and told us which real-life Clinton aide equaled which WW character, totally missing -- as I've written here -- that the show was Sorkin's romantic fantasy, written and produced as realistically as humanly possible, of how a White House could function if you took people with the same potential and allowed them to behave just a tad more idealistically.

Maybe it's only natural that someone who writes real-life romance as penetratingly and sympathetically as Sorkin should be in general outlook a romantic fantasist. It seems to me obviously true as well for his vision of the TV news business in The Newsroom, which is why hitting him over the head for incorporating hindsight into shows built around historical events is so totally beside the point. This might matter if the Newsroom episodes were documentaries, or even intended as fictional re-creations of how those actual events unfolded in the media. The point is that all the things his characters are allowed to know are things that people in their position could have known, and in this romantic fantasy it's fair game to imagine how differently events could have unfolded if people had done their jobs with just a bit more character, a bit more appreciation for the consequences.

Sports Night too was a romantic fantasy. It's important that the show-within-a-show Sports Night was not a ratings magnet; it was unabashedly a no. 3 show. But the people involved, starting at the top with Isaac, were trying to do something different, something more honest and informing. Without saying that there are no bosses in positions like Isaac's who share his belief about employees "fitting in," I have to say that it still impresses me



At 4:09 AM, Anonymous newbroom said...

I love to 're-watch' old tv series. Right now I'm watching 8 yrs or so of Gunsmoke. Back in the day, there were only so many choices and I think that TV's influence and reflection of social mores was more universal, or, less segmented and nuanced by variety or specialization. Justice at the end of Matt Dillon's gun was tempered by just enough humanity to make that justice seem to be acceptable and laudable.


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