Let’s Talk About “Sports Night”

Aaron Sorkin confounds people, and, even with my very limited exposure to his work, I think that’s one of the things I like most about him. Even at the early point in his career in which Sports Night takes place, I think there are very legitimate criticisms to be made about various elements of his writing – but I also can’t deny the presence of a certain mischievous joy in constantly screwing with people. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible, and probably even likely, that I am giving Sorkin entirely too much credit, and that he is in fact a deeply flawed writer who happens to have certain toys he plays with very well. It’s also possible that his flaws became more pronounced as time went on, and that, at the time of Sports Night, he was more able to keep control of them, so, really, my initial instincts were correct.

Notwithstanding all of that, I would like to put right at the front that I adored Sports Night. As I mentioned, I have a very limited knowledge of Aaron Sorkin (I think I’ve seen this and The Social Network), so for me, this was a similar experience to people watching the show for the first time in the nineties. True, the landscape of television has obviously changed since then, and I’m coming at this from a very different place than people surrounded by Urkel’s and Uncle Joey’s, but I still had a jolt of shock when I first began watching. I had never heard people talk quite like that before, with the sorts of cadences and rhythms that are more interested in each other than in making sure you’re keeping up, and while, yes, that is hardly uncommon in today’s hyper-intelligent rapid-fire single camera universe, there’s still something to be said for the original.

I think it’s fair to say that the closest comparison to this show would be Newsradio, in terms of the setting, premise, general comedic style, and way in which they both would have been a lot more comfortable about a decade later. But, while I will wax rhapsodic about Newsradio for as long as people will let me (I’ve not found that to be long), I did find myself preferring certain elements of Sports Night. While Newsradio was hysterically funny, there was a fundamental, almost cartoonish, cynicism to it. Sports Night played hopscotch with “realism,” but it never allowed itself to stray too far into tomfoolery, and it had a base of optimism to which it could always return at the end of the day. I believe the two elements are connected – when you got right down to it, no one at Newsradio ever cared much about anything, because there was never any certainty that the next episode wouldn’t take place IN SPACE. At Sports Night, there are repercussions to actions, but there’s also evidence that people tend to, by and large, behave decently when challenged.

Not that I’m letting Sorkin off the hook! Seriously, I’m rarely this conflicted about a piece of media. I found it smart, hilarious, entertaining; I fell in love with the bromance of the two central characters, and I really got behind the idea that, regardless of whatever else might be going on during a particular week, these people truly liked one another. But I found his sexual politics reprehensible, his need to treat stances of commonsense decency as revelatory obnoxious, and the inconsistency between what characters did, what they said, and what other people said about them frustratingly problematic. He drove me crazy with the way that potentially interesting plotlines would be abruptly dropped and interminable ones would be allowed to stew forever, inhaling up everything that was good into their howling black pits of doom.

And yet, when I think about this show (which, cards on the table, I watched in its entirely during the past 48 hours; blame the hurricane), the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the idiocy of Natalie and Dana’s “Because we’re women” speech. It’s Dan and Casey finishing each others’ thoughts, it’s Isaac’s impassioned defense of civil liberties, it’s a frozen turkey falling on the set. Though it can sometimes get bogged down in its own self-righteousness, this show is a heck of a lot of fun. If I were to guess – and, please keep in mind, this is only guessing as, again, I have not seen any of his other work – that’s where Sorkin went wrong in later years. In other words, it’s easy to pick out danger zones in Sports Night where the show threatened to be swallowed up by its own ass, but the show is, by and large, more interested in enjoying itself, and always manages to get back from that precipice.

I’m hardly the first person to express these contradictions, and I’m pretty sure most people who encounter Sorkin’s work end up in somewhat the same area. Look, anyone who consistently depicts women in positions or authority and is then incapable of characterizing them as competent in those positions is going to raise some eyebrows. Anyone with that distinctive of a dialogic style is going to run into visceral reactions. And if you are going to co opt your television show as a platform for Issues, you are going to invite criticism on both the expression and content of those ideas.

But I can’t stay mad at Sports Night for long. There’s such joy in this show, such giggly glee in the process. I know it’s a little ironic to say this about Sorkinese, but he knows how to let a scene breathe. So much television falls into the pitfall of thinking that all dialogue must be centered around the driving plot or theme of the day; Sorkin knows the value in letting his characters shoot the shit, while not getting lost in Seinfeldian aimlessness. In Sports Night, there’s fun, there’s purpose, there’s nuance, and there are enough fundamental flaws to keep us all yelling until we’re blue in the face. I may not like the way certain characters are portrayed, I may not like the plotlines certain characters are forced to sit through, I may not like the way Casey is portrayed as a knight in shining armor when he so clearly leans closer to the side of douchetron – but I can’t deny that every character is given at least one redeeming moment, one flicker of nuance, that there’s an equal number of brilliant plotlines, and that Casey is also a nice guy who occasionally has some lapses. Basically, Sports Night, in under ten words: I love this show, warts and all.

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