The history of television is littered with corpses of programs that were either ahead of their time, ignored or poorly promoted -- sometimes all three factors combine to kill off a show that either never had a chance or just wasn't meant to be. Fortunately, with the ascent of DVD as both accessible home entertainment medium and archival tool, shows that might've otherwise slipped through the cracks can enjoy something of a better-late-than-never revival.
Aaron Sorkin has not one, but two such series to his credit: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" died a quick death in 2007 and almost 10 years earlier, Sorkin's break-out dramedy Sports Night, which had the misfortune to arrive just as "The West Wing," another Sorkin creation, was taking off. Regardless of its eventual fate -- it lasted just two seasons on ABC from 1998-2000 -- the series remains a joy to watch and has only bettered with age.
Rapid-fire to the point of fatigue and exceptionally smart (remember, this trait was on display in an era before broadcast and basic cable television have the pedigree -- such as it is -- that they do now), Sorkin's Sports Night is only nominally about sports, much as "West Wing" is about politics or "Studio 60" is about live television.
As with all of Sorkin's work, Sports Night is chiefly about the relationships between a cast of sharply drawn and exceptionally well-acted characters that populate the landscape in front of and behind the cameras of the fictional "Sportscenter" doppelganger that gives the series its name.
Co-anchors Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause), who share a contentious friendship, are the witty, passionate hosts of "Sports Night," a sports-centric late-night program airing on fictional channel CSC. Overseen by producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), the chaos and day-to-day surprises that form the backbone of each season's arc allow for some wonderfully rich character work from Joshua Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume and many others, including recurring guest stars like Peter Riegert, William H. Macy, Teri Polo and Ted McGinley.
There are romances and feuds -- and even real-life drama (Guillaume suffered a stroke midway through the first season; bravely, Sorkin wrote the actor's trauma into the series and even incorporated the show's uncertain fate in both season finales) on the set of Sports Night, always peppered with Sorkin's trademark high-minded shotgun speech. While the series' style seems commonplace now, it's worth remembering that TV was still locked in the grip of "Seinfeld" and "Friends" when Sports Night first began airing, which could explain why audiences were slow to warm to the laugh track-adverse, restless and often whip-smart dramedy but why it enjoys such a following now.
Sports Night is a singular television experience, one that sadly never really had a chance to explore its full potential. While some viewers have embraced it through re-runs or on DVD, there is a sense that Sports Night was a one-shot phenomenon. Sorkin, then untested, now commands attention when he launches a new show; many of the cast members have gone on to very successful careers. It's a fluke in the best possible sense, one that escaped the factory alive and will always be held up as an example of television at its finest.
This eight-disc set marks the second release of Sports Night in region one. In 2002, a six-disc set, sans any supplements, was released, which seemed to sate fans, but fell short for most. While this 10th anniversary doesn't quite achieve definitive status, it's certainly a step up from the previous incarnation.
The two seasons are housed in four double-disc thinpaks, with a disc on each side of the case. The thinpaks slide into a sturdy slipcover that includes a 33-page booklet, which houses episode synopses (with original broadcast date, titles and trivia), an introductory essay from Sorkin and a rough map of the Sports Night set.
Presented as originally broadcast on ABC, Sports Night looks about as solid as one could expect, given its just had its 10th birthday. Not having the 2002 set available for comparison, I can't speak as to whether Shout! Factory cleaned the image up in any way, but I can't imagine they did. While Sports Night looks, overall, clean, mostly clear (there are instances of noticeable grain throughout these 45 episodes) and only occasionally soft, this is an acceptable image, but far from a stellar one. I also have issues with the credit screens, which often border on excessive softness and even seem a bit noisy.
The Dolby 2.0 track, which appeared to be much louder on some episodes than others, is uniformly acceptable throughout these 45 episodes. Dialogue (of which there is so very much) is heard without too much drop-out or loss of clarity. Again, not having the 2002 set available for comparison, I can't speak as to whether Shout! Factory re-mastered the audio, but it doesn't seem that they did. No optional subtitles are included.
While the supplements are far from exhaustive (and, arguably, some die-hard fans of the show might be disappointed no matter what's trotted out on DVD), it's heartening to see Shout! Factory at least attempt to provide some context for this beloved series, rather than simply dumping it onto DVD six years after it was first ... dumped onto DVD. The bonus features are spread through out this eight-disc set (which contains two more discs than the 2002 edition, both of which are devoted to extras) and are as follows:
Disc One: Sorkin and Schlamme sit for a fast-paced commentary track on the pilot, which covers a lot of ground in its 22 minutes; a very compelling yack-track.
Disc Two: A trio of commentaries is included here -- actors Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Sabrina Lloyd and director Robert Berlinger discuss "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee"; Emmy-winning editor Janet Ashikaga holds forth on "Small Town" while actors Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Timothy Davis-Reed and Ron Ostrow pop up on "Sally."
Disc Three: Just one commentary here -- Krause and Berlinger talk over "Eli's Coming."
Disc Four: This disc is newly created for the 10th anniversary set and contains four featurettes, playable separately or all together. The 33 minute, 47 second "The Show" (presented in fullscreen) includes fresh interviews with Sorkin, Schlamme, Charles, Krause, Huffman, Malina, Berlinger, Ashikaga and Guillaume (uh, where's Sabrina Lloyd?). It's a candid, at times poignant look back at the genesis of the show, along with its first season. The 21 minute, three second "Face Off: ESPN's Sportscenter vs. CSC's Sports Night" (presented in fullscreen) is a fascinating look at the facts and fictions of Sorkin's series and features interviews with Sorkin, Berlinger, director of photography Peter Smokler, Krause, Guillaume, Huffman, Charles, Schlamme and Malina, along with several "Sportscenter" staffers -- producers Glenn Jacobs, Elizabeth Sosbee and Michael Shiffman; anchors Jay Harris and Josh Elliott and researcher David Rose. The 11 minute, 44 second gag reel (presented in fullscreen) was, according to a brief intro, "created for the season one wrap party" and is "one of the few surviving personal cast and crew VHS copies." Appropriately, it doesn't look the greatest (and is time-coded) but nevertheless packs quite a few chuckles. Four original promos that aired on ABC when Sports Night was being broadcast -- presented in fullscreen and playable separately or all together for an aggregate of one minute, 37 seconds -- completes the disc.
Disc One: A big group -- actors Baker, Blake, Charles, Davis-Reed, Malina and Ostrow -- sit for a commentary track on "Kafelnikov."
Disc Three: Actors Charles and Malina chat about "The Local Weather" while Sorkin and Schlamme come full circle to offer a commentary track on the series finale "Quo Vadimus." Thankfully, both men refrain from sour grapes and instead offer a frank assessment of realities off- and on-screen.
Disc Four: The second brand-new disc to this set plays host to the bonus features for the second season, which seem awfully slight in comparison to the relative bounty of first season extras (there are even fewer commentary tracks for the second season). Again, these three featurettes are playable separately or all together. The 26 minute, eight second "Looking Back with Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme" (presented in fullscreen) is a sit-down interview with the two men who helped get Sports Night off the ground; a lot of the information is redundant when taken together with the first season retrospective and the pair's commentary tracks. The 21 minute, 15 second "Inside the Locker Room" (presented in fullscreen) discusses the technical innovations of the series, particularly the way it was staged, filmed and edited. A puny one minute, 51 second gag reel (presented in rough-looking, time-coded fullscreen) completes the set.
Sports Night is a singular television experience, one that sadly never really had a chance to explore its full potential. While some viewers have embraced it through re-runs or on DVD, there is a sense that Sports Night was a one-shot phenomenon. Creator Aaron Sorkin, then untested, now commands attention when he launches a new show; many of the cast members have gone on to very successful careers. It's a fluke in the best possible sense, one that escaped the factory alive and will always be held up as an example of television at its finest. While this eight-disc set is an improvement upon the original 2002 release, it still doesn't feel complete. Between a relative paucity of commentary tracks (eight over 45 episodes), the absence of Sabrina Lloyd in the bonus features (appearing on a single commentary track isn't much) and picture/audio quality that does the job but doesn't quite clear the bar, this 10th anniversary collection falls on the side of a very strong Recommended.