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August 22, 2014

Gone Too Soon: Sports Night

by Jason Hughes, posted Dec 14th 2009 7:04PM
Sports Night
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.

Robert GuillaumeThe 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.

Felicity Huffman, Josh Charles, Peter KrauseHow 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.

Sports NightWho cares?
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!]

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zita

Great show (btw, in Spain, only a few episodes from season one were shown). Of course, West Wing was great, too, but those two cannot be compared:way too different stories! I'm sure of one thing, though: I would watch it if, by some miracle, they renewed its production.

December 16 2009 at 8:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brett Alan

I've probably re-watched this show more often than anything else--I used to watch it on Comedy Central endlessly, and I still reach for the DVDs (and I don't often pull out DVDs in general). Can't tell you how often I find myself quoting the show: "Then begone with you both!" "It's a vicious circle. It goes round and round. That's what makes it vicious. And a circle." "For I am fine!" "John Rocker is a big honkin' doofus." "Do you think the outcome would have been different if he had taken mild doses of physic to work on his bowels?" "...with the bricks, and the mortar, and the other thing."

December 15 2009 at 4:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gina

I loved this show. Thought it was one of the best shows on TV. Also loved the West Wing.

December 15 2009 at 10:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lisa

Some of Sorkin's best work and a real loss at the time. A friend of mine was a huge fan of this show and when West Wing launched it was love at first sight for me but I couldn't convince him to watch it. I kept telling him, it's Sorkin's same rapid-fire dialogue, the walk and talk, it's all there. Well, I finally convinced him and he owns every season of both shows. I also was probably one of just the 5 fans out there that liked Studio 60...when will Sorkin be back, I miss him.

December 15 2009 at 7:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lisa's comment
R. Reed

as I recall, this was the show that first displayed Sorkin's trademark walk 'n talk steadycam staging.

December 15 2009 at 9:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rich

Loved this show.

December 15 2009 at 12:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gina

I love this show. Loved it. I have the complete series playing through my iTunes every few months. This show really tugged on my heartstrings more than once. Really solid writing that still captures me to this day. And seriously, hearing the laugh track now when watching Season 1 episodes, you just have to wonder who at ABC ever thought it was a brilliant idea to ever add one.

December 14 2009 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
C.A.

Own the complete series and still watch it regularly. This show was great and is truly a sad loss.

December 14 2009 at 7:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MIke

I completely agree. Great cast and dialouge. One of the best shows of the '90s.

December 14 2009 at 7:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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