An amazing show, written and produced by Aaron Sorkin.
It's a comedy/drama about a third-place late night sports show, called, aptly, " Sports Night."
The writing is excellent, (Sorkin also writes and produces "The West Wing," and wrote "A Few Good Men" and "The American President") and the cast is first-rate.

The two anchors, Casey McCall and Dan Rydell are played by Peter Krause (also in "Six Feet Under") and Josh Charles (also in "Dead Poets Society") respectively. The characters are best friends, and their inane conversations are great.

Felicity Huffman (excellent actress from David Mamet's Atlantic Theatre Company) plays Dana, the producer, and Sabrina Lloyd (also in "Sliders") plays her assistant, Natalie. Dana is a quirky woman, being a graduate of ladies' charm school and having many older brothers who taught her to love sports. Natalie is one of the most energetic and loveable characters, and provides social guidance for the rather clueless Dana.

Lastly we have Jeremy and Isaac. Jeremy is a great nerd character, played by Josh Malina (whose best known credits are Sorkin's other movies), who knows all sorts of obscure information and develops a romantic relationship with Natalie. Isaac, played by Robert Guillaume (who was Benson and was a voice in the Lion King), is the managing editor and resident curmudgeon.

All of the characters have depth and humanity, but are also funny and loveable. The show moves a lot; like "ER" and "West Wing," many of the shots follow people as they go hurriedly about their business. These two factors quickly suck you in and get you emotionally invested in the characters' struggles.

It originally aired on ABC, and met with gushing praise from critics, but didn't get particularly good ratings. When ABC let on that it wasn't going to renew the contract, HBO made motions at picking the series up (which is paralleled by "Sports Night" in the events of the final episodes). HBO changed their minds at the last minute, so the show disappeared for a while. Thankfully, Comedy Central has begun airing the old episodes (10:30am and 1:30am ET most weekdays). They have added a laugh track to some episodes (Boo. It sucks. The show works better without it) and broken up the commercials in different places (sometimes a bit awkward), but it's great to see the show on TV again.

Yes, I was incorrect, the laugh track was originally in the first few episodes of the show aired on ABC, and not used in the later episodes.

All of Sports Night, both seasons, is now available on DVD. Last I checked, it was only about $50, which is WELL worth it.
“Sports Night” is one of my favorite television shows. It’s ability to mix comedy and drama exceed that of M*A*S*H, and really haven’t been touched since.

The previous write-up is more than adequate, though there are a couple of points to make:

  1. The laugh track was not added by Comedy Central. Given fast pace of the show, the comedy/drama blend, and other factors, ABC was worried that the audience wouldn’t know when to laugh. So, in the first several episodes, there is the laugh track. One of the many evil acts ABC/Disney has committed over the years.
  2. Josh Malina was not only in “Sports Night”, but he was in both of Aaron Sorkin’s movies, The American President and A Few Good Men. He also played in the stage version of the latter. In the fall of 2002, he joined the case of "The West Wing."
  3. The cancellation of “Sports Night” has actually been tied to the success of “The West Wing.” ABC was worried that, given the success of the other show, the struggles of “Sports Night,” and their own lackluster support, the quality would suffer. Mr. Sorkin even confirmed that it was a struggle to serve two masters.
Too bad it is no more!
As is established above, Sports Night is good. That's true, but it was also, if not ground-breaking, than at least unique in and of itself. Here's why.

Aaron Sorkin made some extremely strange choices in the production of this show, choices that intensely changed its overall character and raised it above the rabble. It raised it so far above the rabble, in fact, that the show's ratings were far lower than expected. Let's take 'em one by one.

  1. No opening credit sequence
  2. The opening credit sequence is traditionally used to, you know, tell the audience what the hell they're watching. Montages of the main characters, establishing shots of their neighborhood and visual clues as to how the characters are related to each other all collaborate to inform viewers as to the shape of the playing field, as it were. It's an effective use of time in most sitcoms because nothing really changes from episode to episode - you get images of a mother-daughter relationship in the opening credit sequence and you've already got a substantial portion of the plot.

    Sports Night opens with a card featuring the show's name over music that fades out to the show proper. It has the effect of dropping you right into the middle of it without wasting time on titles that no one really cares about. It also gave the writers another minute of dialogue to play with, and they needed every second they could get.

  3. No laugh track
  4. Okay, there was an extremely minimal laugh track for most of the first season, but none at all for the second. It's refreshing - Sorkin assumed his viewers were smart enough to know what funny was and assumed his viewers would achieve an empathic connection to his characters through what they were actually saying instead of how an audience was reacting to it. It's not an unprecedented choice, but it is a rare one.

  5. Reverse camera angles and the walk-and-talk
  6. Unlike most sitcoms whose sets are small, static and always filmed from the front to let the audience, you know, exist somewhere, Sorkin used mobile camera positions, reverse angle and over-the-shoulder shots and a set that was absolutely huge, encompassing an entire floor of a fictional New York City office building instead of, say, a living room and a kitchen. Oh, and speaking of which:

  7. A massive cast
  8. The top-billed weekly cast was six people, plus another seven who were in almost every episode, usually with a line or two here and there. That's thirteen people, which is more than double the norm, but the numbers don't come close to emphasizing how many people are on camera at any given time. Sorkin intentionally designs his sets using tons of glass so that, even if a scene is two people talking in an office, there's always tons of stuff going on in the background - it brings the whole thing alive in a visceral way.

  9. Plot
  10. Meaning, there actually is one. Or really, there're lots of them. Multiple love interests, break-ups, complicated relationships, family problems, snarky business conversations and all the rest. One character has a stroke, which is an interesting story in and of itself - turns out, the reason Sorkin gave the managing editor of the show a stroke was because the actor actually had a stroke on the set - Sorkin wrote in his illness to keep him in the show once he'd recovered as a way to explain the change in his mannerisms. Sorkin has bad luck with that - John Spencer, the actor who played Bartlet's Chief-of-Staff on "The West Wing," played a character with a history of heart disease. The irony of it was that Spencer had a real life and utterly fatal heart attack in the show's seventh season.

    The point is, asides, um, aside, that it was entirely possible to drop in to watch a random episode and be a bit...lost. Not entirely - the jokes are funny no matter what, but quite a bit of the plot would be missed or misunderstood. It's a strategy that favors the fans for sure, but it ain't normal.

The thing is, Sports Night wasn't really a sitcom at all. It was a drama - a tremendously witty and humorous one, but a drama nonetheless, just squeezed into a half-hour time slot. If anyone knows of another show on television that's ever tried to pull that off, let me know - I'd be interested to take a look at it.

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