Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Good, The Bad, & The Dramedy: Why Sports Night Was Ahead Of Her Time

After a long and painful separation, I have recently reunited with my much-beloved boxed set of Sports Night. Aaron Sorkin’s first show, set backstage at something like SportsCenter but with more wit and walk-and-talks, is probably right up there in my top five shows of all time.

I once had the great pleasure of meeting Teri Polo (Sports Night’s Rebecca), who was at the time working on The West Wing, and the first thing I said to her was, “I love Sports Night!” (So did she.)

Obviously, I wasn’t watching the show when it originally aired, which was a series of 45 random days in 1999, 2000, and 2001. (I was much too busy with Carter, Abby, and the seventh grade.) After Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme left The West Wing, I turned to Sports Night DVDs to fill the void. What I found there was not only comfort after that terrible loss, but something totally new. It’s sometimes hilarious and sometimes sad and sometimes romantic and sometimes maudlin, but it’s always clever and full of heart and wit. It’s undeniably Sorkinesque. Bradley Whitford, in his Emmy acceptance speech for The West Wing, calls the Sorkin/Schlamme machine “the most radical envelope there is: one of intelligence and wit and hope.”

It’s what we’d now call a dramedy.

Not to disparage those who lived through that television era, but the powers that be didn’t really know what to do with Sports Night.

Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Does it need a laugh track? How do we market this? What Emmy category would this fall into?

The audience was equally confused. Watch this:



Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Dan just made a joke and then told a sad story about his brother dying. What do I do with that? Do I laugh? Do I cry? Do I chuckle awkwardly? And how come this show is on Monday this week?

The series lasted only two seasons on ABC, but I’m confident it would do much better in today’s market. We’ve accepted the dramedy as a critical part of today’s television: Desperate Housewives, Gilmore Girls, Pushing Daisies... Two of those are on Sports Night’s network, even! Also, we’ve practically disposed of the laugh track, thereby giving the audience the benefit of the doubt: we can decide what’s funny for ourselves, thank you very much.

Sports Night was, in essence, ahead of its time.

I think television and its audience has evolved enough to appreciate the wry humor, the sarcasm, the coexistence of humor and tragedy.

I think Arrested Development was much the same enigma and it suffered much the same fate that Sports Night did. The Office and 30 Rock follow closely in its footsteps at times (in a wonderful way, not a plagiaristic one), employing that kind of humor that’s not quite gross-out but definitely makes you cringe with discomfort. And then you just die laughing.

My appreciation for that series is also born of boxed sets. I’m so not on the cutting edge of television. For practically every show I’ve ever loved, I’ve arrived late to the party. Deborah introduced me to The Office. John introduced me to Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock. My freshman-year roommate introduced me to The West Wing. My sophomore-year roommate introduced me to Lost.

My point is not that television is hopeless, destined to toss aside brilliant goldmines like Sports Night and Arrested Development. It’s not. I’d rather see these shows as, pardon the expression, martyrs of their genres. These series absolutely paved the way for the future, and while I’d have loved for them to be a part of that future, at the end of the day, it is what it is. Somebody had to go first. Felicity Huffman knows that! She didn’t win an Emmy for Sports Night, but when she did, for Desperate Housewives in 2005, she damn well thanked Aaron Sorkin, for “casting me in Sports Night.”

We’re getting better, too.

I like to think that today we reward quality more than we used to. We toss stuff aside, sure, but it’s usually because it sucks. (NBC cancelled Quarterlife last week after just a sneak-peek episode.) We’re better about ramping up efforts to save on-the-cusp shows, like Friday Night Lights. We’re more educated on what works and what doesn’t and why it does and why it doesn’t, if that makes any sense. I feel like the general television community is more attuned to quality than we used to be. We want a show to do more than just make us laugh. We want it to be compelling and consistent and character-driven and good.

Would I keel over and die if the cast of Sports Night decided to get back together and try it again? Absolutely, I would. I’d love resolution to the Casey/Dana saga, to see Sports Night under the wing of Calvin Trager, who seemed eager to give them freedom and funding, and mostly just to keep hearing the banter. Also, now might be a good time to note that the Arrested Development cast may indeed be regrouping for a feature film, which I strongly support and anticipate.

‘Cause seriously, even at its absolute worst, Studio 60 still had some of the best dialogue I’ve ever heard. And that show sucked. Aaron Sorkin is a talented individual, folks.

This video has crappy quality, but the dialogue is still, as Sally Sasser would say, “paced to within an inch of [its] life.”



So let’s get jazzed about good television. Now’s the time to find new stuff before the season picks up again: I did! I know it sounds simple, but let’s watch stuff that’s good and not watch stuff that’s bad.

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