Monday, January 12, 2009

Sports Night

Sap and I are into the third disc of this series, and it's really good. It was Aaron Sorkin's first show, and you West Wing fans out there will recognize the dialog, as well as several of the actors. It's lighter than The West Wing also, and straddles the comedy and drama genres. This appears to have given the producers some trouble early on, who inexplicably inserted a laugh track. It's particularly jarring because a) the show is clearly too high quality for that nonsense, and b) the track only gets used once or twice per episode, making it that much more noticeable.

The characters are endearing (I really thought I was going to hate the anchors at first, but they quickly grew on me), the dialog well-timed, and the relationships tangled and interesting, but it's the way that Sports Night makes sports meaningful and relevant that most impresses me. At the end of the pilot, all the characters, with their messy lives and hard, New York shells, have to stop and recognize the inspiration and connection with humanity they feel when a 41 year old South African distance runner born into poverty and hardship shatters a world record. In another, a talented and brilliant college athlete puts his scholarship in jeopardy by refusing to play under the Confederate flag that graces his school's stadium, which presents a particular moral question to Sports Night's black producer (Robert Guillaume).

I've read some reviews that try to entice savvy TV viewers by arguing that the show "isn't really about sports." I strongly disagree, in the same way I would disagree with the common argument that The West Wing isn't really about politics. Yes, both of these shows are also about relationships, but in both cases the context matters. The characters in both obsess about, and are affected by, what they see and do in their professional capacities, in both moment-to-moment emotional reactions and in their personalities and relationships. It matters that Jed Bartlett is the president and that the characters are Democrats working in the White House. The political topics they discuss aren't mere Star Trek technobabble, incoherent jargon designed to make the scenery more believable. A more accurate statement is that Sports Night is accessible to people who don't like sports, perhaps even moreso than The West Wing with non-political types. This is probably because SN is more precisely about sports media than sports per se, so it also discusses journalism, making a TV show, dealing with "the network," etc.

Nevertheless, this show is most definitely about sports. It's about sports as a repository of great deeds and amazing people, and the inspiration they can be to everyone watching. It's about the dark side of sports, the idolizing of misogynistic meatheads and the cruelty with which the female victims of sports stars are treated. It's about sports as a crucible for the culture wars, and as a way to humanize different sides by giving them a face. And that's just in the first 10 or so episodes.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I really like seeing a show where you have a bunch of successful, highly intelligent, educated liberals (and even a geek or two!) who are unapologetic in their love of sports. People tend to forget that Keith Olbermann was a sportscaster first, and that the smartest guy on TV is probably Bob Costas.

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