A year before screenwriter Aaron Sorkin introduced the world to The West Wing in the fall of 1999, he introduced audiences to Sports Night. While Sorkin’s white house drama lasted seven seasons, was one of the top-ten most-watched shows on any given week and earned boatloads of Emmy’s, Sports Night lasted two seasons, suffered from lower ratings (even when sandwiched between hit shows Spin City and NYPD Blue) and failed to garner any Emmy love outside of directing.
Yet the series became something of a cult-favourite after it went off the air. Comedy Central begin re-airing it a few years after it’s cancellation. Stars Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman went on to star in the hits Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives. The DVD box set became a big seller where fans would binge-watch all 45 episodes before binge-watching was even a thing – and it’s easy to understand why.
Sports Night, which debuted on Sept. 25, 1998, was a show about the behind-the-scenes organization of a live New York City nightly cable sports news broadcast hosted by charismatic anchors Casey McCall (Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles). Their producer, Dana (Huffman) loves her job more than anything and is a master at delivering a show every night no matter what. Her personal life is another matter though, but with a solid team behind her including senior associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) and research analyst Jeremy (Joshua Malina), they work their magic while former CNN London bureau chief Isaac Jafee oversees the entire staff. Jafee also has to keep the network big wigs of Continental Sports Corporation (CSC) from meddling with the show.
This series was a gamble for ABC seeing as how the network’s biggest hits at the time, Home Improvement and The Drew Carey Show weren’t exactly the most intellectually stimulating things on the air. For viewers craving more, Sports Night came at the right time. Critics flipped over it but it never caught fire with audiences. After two years, the series was cancelled.
In honor of Sports Night’s 20th anniversary, I have picked out the five “best” episodes. This was not easy at all because out of 45 terrific episodes, there really isn’t a bad one among them. Also, rather than think of this as a “best of” list, I chose to write about my favorite five episodes. This is why, season one’s second episode, “The Apology” is not in this list even though it is understandably, a major fan favorite. The same thing for season one’s seventh episode, “Dear Louise.” Also, I included a two-parter in this list because, well, as mentioned, they were among my favorites. I’m positive I can easily come up with another five favorite (or “best of”) episodes and I will in the next installment. And I can pick another five and then another five. Each episode offered at least a dozen very memorable lines of dialogue or introduced a new memorable aspect as the series went on (Gordon’s shirt, Dana’s dance of joy, a girl named Pixley, and Jenny, the porn-star/ choreo-animator). Even though the show may have ended when Bill Clinton was president, Sports Night continues to earn new fans and with many TV shows now returning after many years off the air, (Murphy Brown ended in 1994 and now that’s coming back) maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the gang of Sports Night back together one more time. But until then, here five of the series’ best episodes:
“Pilot” (Season #1, Episode #1)
The series begins with a single incident that shakes up the sports world – NBA player Jason Grissum is arrested for assaulting a fan with a bottle of cognac in a strip-club and it’s up to the Sports Night team to report on the sordid details. One of the show’s anchors, Casey McCall (Krause) has had it with reporting on players who care more about the money and fame and the players who throw it all away because of their violent natures – including a very famous incident that dominated sports news (this episode was written just two years after the O.J. Simpson verdict). Casey is also dealing with a recent divorce from an ex who never really liked him (or his co-workers). Add to that, the network bosses at CSC which broadcasts Sports Night, are noticing Casey’s lack of passion and indifference and are considering firing him because of his sullen attitude. While this is going on, Casey is concerned about what kind of role models there are in the world for his 8-year-old son?
Oh, did I mention that this show is a comedy?
With this first episode, creator Aaron Sorkin brilliantly creates characters with heart, complexity and neurosis. It’s only after Casey witnesses an athlete nobody’s ever heard of, in another part of the world, do something so astonishing that no athlete has ever done before, that he’s reminded of the genuine power and drive that makes an athlete a true athlete and re-invigorates his love for sports.
Sports Night premiered less than four months after the biggest show in TV history, Seinfeld went off the air and the characters on that show possessed none of the humanistic traits the characters here do. Although, I’d wager that even if Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were to watch the final two minutes of the pilot episode of Sports Night, even they would be crying. It’s one of the most moving sitcom pilots ever created.
“Intellectual Property” (Season #1, Episode #4)
The first absolute knockout episode of Sports Night. There’s so much to get to here, it’s difficult to know where to start; Casey is trying to convince everybody he is being tormented by a monster fly in the studio but everybody thinks the fly is a symptom of his torment over his feelings for Dana – feelings he claims don’t even exist (they do). Dan gets the network in hot water for singing “Happy Birthday” to Casey on air and Dana goes on her first trip with her new boyfriend, Gordon, which all leads up to a four minute no-holds-barred, emotionally fraught screaming match between Dana and Casey that is one for the history books. No couple has gone at each other like this on TV before (and no couple would until Tony and Carmella Soprano came along to TV a year later). Also, in typical Sorkin fashion, Dana and Casey’s dynamic verbal sparring is filmed in one single continuous, amazing take. This is where all three main strengths of Sports Night (acting, writing and directing) brilliantly wove together for the first time and it’s nothing short of dazzling.
“The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee” (Season #1, Episode #11)
Sports Night was tackling the issue of sports and race 18 years before anybody in the NFL decided to take a knee in this, the first holiday episode of the series. Young Roland Shepherd, a black student/athlete at Tennessee State University, has refused to participate in any more college games while the Confederate flag is displayed. Because of this, he is facing college expulsion. Five other of Roland’s teammates decide to stand with him and are facing the same penalty. It then falls onto Sports Night’s managing-editor, Isaac Jafee to address the matter in one of the series’ most poignant and powerful moments. Isaac’s speech about the dark, troublesome racist history of the Confederate flag is second only to Dan’s apology in “The Apology.” Also happening: Casey is admonished by a staff dresser after he appears on The View where he takes credit for his sharp wardrobe. To make up for this oversight, Casey and Dan name the staff members who contribute to the creation of Sports Night on the air in the nights leading up to Christmas. What makes this moment all the more meaningful is that these are the names of the actual people behind the real Sports Night and not the show-within-the-show. It’s noteworthy whenever a television show manages to make the audience emotionally tear up even once. This supreme episode of Sports Night makes viewers do it twice.
“Celebrities” (Season #2, Episode #14)
This episode of Sports Night is unique in that it places one of the cast’s core characters away from everyone else for most of the episode which is kind of a daring thing to do after 35 episodes. Jeremy is nursing his recent breakup with Natalie inside Anthony’s Bar while the gang across the street, play a game called “celebrities” – a trivia/question game where one has to guess the identity of the correct celebrity. Jeremy, keeping to himself, meets the gorgeous Jenny (Paula Marshall) who takes an instant liking to him. The problem is that Jenny works in adult movies as a porn star. Fazed by why someone like Jenny would be interested in him, Jeremy exhibits sudden discomfort towards Jenny’s lifestyle and insults her – a reaction brought on out of fear that Jenny might reject him first. When Jenny walks away, Jeremy heads back over to CSC where he sits alone while his friend’s game is still going strong. Malina owns this episode and in just 22 minutes, he manages to convey many emotions – heartbreak, loneliness, embarrassment, fear and regret. This is Malina’s finest episode since season one’s “The Hungry and the Hunted.”
“The Local Weather” (Season #2, Episode #15)
“The Local Weather” can be considered part 2 of “Celebrities” and like the previous episode, it also presents a unique scenario as it’s the only show in the entire run that has a scene which takes place outside! And it only took 40 episodes to get there. Jeremy has decided to give Jenny a chance – by e-mail – but then he has doubts again and decides not to give her a chance. Unfortunately, Jeremy’s second e-mail to Jenny explaining that he doesn’t want to date her, fails to reach her and soon enough, Jenny shows up at Anthony’s Bar to meet a confused Jeremy – who by now, doesn’t know what he wants. As New York City finds itself in a fierce rainstorm, the gang across the street contend with Dana’s newfound love of religion (after she takes refuge from the rain inside a church), Casey juggles trying to please his co-workers with take-out food delivered from about six different places (during the rainstorm) and Dan spends an hour discussing his growing disillusionment of the show (and jealousy over Jeremy (sorta-maybe) dating a porn-star) with his therapist Abby – in her office doorway. After Jeremy insults Jenny (again), she walks out on him where he later waits for her in the pouring rain to apologize and confess that he does like her but is scared. This is the “outside” portion of the episode (granted, it’s the sidewalk outside Anthony’s, but it’s the most outside we’ve seen so far). It’s an an episode where many of the characters make confessions (Jeremy to Jenny and Dan to Abby) and one where the feeling of longing for happiness – but not knowing how to obtain it, has never been more palpable.
In the next Installment of this series, I will discuss another five superlative episodes of Sports Night which will include story arcs into Jeremy’s e-mails to Louise, Dan’s romantic pursuit of Rebecca, Dana’s rules for Casey when he dates other women, Isaac’s tearful absence (and return), Sally Sasser and her legs that reach up to her neck, and the actual owner of Gordon’s shirt. Stay tuned, you’re watching CSC.