Gone Too Soon: Sports Night
by Jason Hughes, posted Dec 14th 2009 7:04PM
A lot of times, when a show that we love gets canceled way too early in its run, we like to trot out the mantra: "It was before its time." But looking at a television landscape with The Office, 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation (and that's just one night on one network), I really do think Sports Night may have been too innovative for its own good.
Creator Aaron Sorkin even wanted the sitcom to air without a laugh track, but ABC balked and there is one evident in the first season. It was dropped by the second season, but unfortunately the show was dropped as well after only 45 episodes.
Character relations were front and center, and the humor was much more subtle and dry. In 1998, comedies were still dominating the television landscape, led by traditionally formatted shows like Frasier, Friends, The Drew Carey Show and ABC's TGIF lineup. Maybe the very non-traditional Sports Night should have been an hour long, and acted more like FOX's Ally McBeal.
What was it?
[Spoiler Warning!] Set at a fictional sports network, Sports Night was a riff of ESPN's SportsCenter, but it was a workplace character show at its heart. Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause) were the on-air anchors for the nightly sports program, with Dana (Felicity Huffman) acting as their executive producer, and Jeremy (Joshua Malina) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) as associate producers. Overseeing it all was Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) as their managing editor.
The show managed to avoid going too deeply into the inner works of a 24-hour sports network, which is probably a good thing, as it would have likely alienated most of what audience it could muster. Instead, we got the drama between Dana and Casey, along with the sweeter innocence of Natalie and Jeremy's mutual admiration.
Drama hit the show when actor Robert Guillaume suffered a minor stroke, and then bravely allowed it to be written into the series. When Isaac came back to work, the affects of the stroke were evident, which is pretty heavy stuff for a so-called sitcom, but the writing and performances on the series were as stellar as ever.
A clever multi-camera show filmed to look like a single-camera show that was funny, yet real, Sports Night defied definition, and perhaps that's why audiences weren't ready for it.
Why did it have to go?
It had to leave ABC because of ratings. The network gave it two seasons to find its voice. Like Arrested Development a few years later, there were other suitors for Sports Night. HBO, Showtime and USA all expressed interest, but by this time Sorkin was more interested in focusing on The West Wing. As much as you want to be mad at him for giving up on a gem like this, you can't fault what he achieved there.
How do I find out what happens next?
There has been no official word from Sorkin about what his plans were for the future of the series, but at least one group of fans took it upon themselves to write a virtual third season for the show over at "I Can't Believe It's Not Sports Night." While the website hasn't been updated since 2001, it's a testament to the hold this show had over fans when it first aired from '98-'00. Usually this kind of geeky devotion is only found for science fiction programs.
Where did the cast wind up?
- Josh Charles (Dan Rydell) bounced around in guest spots for awhile, before landing at In Treatment as Jake. He can currently be seen as Will Gardner on The Good Wife.
- Peter Krause (Casey McCall) became a star as Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under. He came back to network television with Dirty, Sexy, Money and next features in NBC's Parenthood.
- Felicity Huffman (Dana Whitaker) kept herself busy with guest spots before nabbing her career-defining role as Lynette Scavo on Desperate Housewives.
- Joshua Malina (Jeremy Goodwin) went on to star as Will Baily on The West Wing, and since then has become one of those faces you see popping up everywhere in guest roles.
- Sabrina Lloyd (Natalie Hurley) went on to recurring roles in Ed, as Frankie Hector, and Numb3rs, as Terri Lake, among other small roles in television and films.
- Robert Guillaume (Isaac Jaffe) is doing more voicework in his latter years, but can still be seen from time to time in front of the camera, winding down a long and distinguished career.
- Many of the smaller recurring character actors went on to play reporters in Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, among other guest work.
Anyone who loves great television has realized that they care more about Sports Night than they realized. Certainly fans of Aaron Sorkin's later work on The West Wing and even Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip have looked back at this series with fondness for blazing the trail on many of Sorkin's television trademarks.
When can I see it?
With Christmas upon us, if you have any TV fans in your life who haven't seen this show yet; or even if they have; you can't go wrong with Sports Night: The Compete Series 10th Anniversary Edition. It's chock full of commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage and even interviews with Aaron Sorkin and others about the making of a modern classic. While you're at it, pick one up to add to your own collection, so you can watch it whenever a new episode of something much worse comes on.
[via Wikipedia, IMDb and more!]