In 10 Words or Less
One of the best, most frenetic TV series ever made
Loves: Sports Night
Dislikes: Working in sports
Hates: Not working in sports
The Story So Far
After writing such movie hits as A Few Good Men and The American President, Aaron Sorkin took his gift for dialogue to the small screen to create Sports Night for ABC, a series exploring what might be going on behind the scenes of a show like ESPN's SportsCenter. Though critically acclaimed, to the tune of eight Emmy nominations and three wins, the show lasted only two seasons, giving way to Sorkin's better-known follow-up The West Wing. The show got a DVD release as a complete series from Disney Home Entertainment in November of 2002, followed by Shout! Factory's 10th Anniversary release of the whole shebang in September of 2008. DVDTalk has reviews of the two previous releases.
In the days before the proliferation of DVRs and the wonder that is Hulu, I watched almost no TV. At least, I didn't watch it when it first aired. The box set was my friend, and through it, I found many new favorites, though frequently far too late, as they had long since been cancelled. That includes Sports Night, easily one of the most enjoyable series I've ever had the fortune to watch. As hard as it is for me to believe, I may have actually enjoyed it even more if I had watched it when it aired, as I was working in a sports newsroom at the time.
Aaron Sorkin's first TV series after a successful screenwriting career, it set the stage for his later success with The West Wing, as he crafted and honed all his trademarks in an arena far less grand than American government, namely the world of late-night sports highlights shows. The interactions between the cast and crew of a last-place TV show certainly don't lack for drama or politics though, even if the show is primarily a comedy. If there's a social or ethics issue out there, there's a good chance it comes up in this series, in a manner most accurately described as "bleeding-heart liberal." The series is achingly idealistic, which is hardly a sin, even if it occasionally steps into afterschool special/very special episode territory, as everyone seems to be trying to save the world or at least do right by the people around them. One episode even centers on one character's inability to give donations to all the charitable groups he'd like to support. These are, for the most part, good people who find themselves in bad situations, while looking for the right thing to do.
If that doesn't seem to be your cup of tea, stick around anyway, because the hopefulness (which thankfully carries on today in more popular series like Modern Family and Community) is just one element of the show. The story of Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause), co-anchors on the show and longtime friends, is the core of the show, as every other relationship branches off of theirs, starting with the will-they-they-probably-won't pairing of Casey and the show's producer, Dana (Felicity Huffman.) They've been together professionally for years and the familiarity has bred some contempt, along with a friendship they value and a love they won't admit. Due to this dynamic, they get into some vicious arguments that are among the series' highlights. There's another boyfriend-girlfriend duo in Dana's right-hand woman Natalie and newly-arrived researcher Jeremy (Sabrina Lloyd and Joshua Malina, respectively) but they are young lovers, so there's no question that they will and will often. Jeremy serves as the audience's cipher as the newcomer to the group, and with his awkwardness and general goofy charm, he was a good choice.
Just because Dan doesn't pair off (due to him being something of a playboy) doesn't mean he doesn't have his own relationship going. He's got Robert Guillaume's editor character Issac, who is a father-figure to Dan. Bringing years of wisdom along with a knowledge of how to play the corporate game to the team, Issac is at the center of every decision, of which there are many, as just anything that could happen at a network series happens on Sports Night, whether it's personnel clashes between Dana and the late-night producer Sally (Brenda Strong) or the group's many clashes with corporate headquarters, which come up frequently. The drama that arises around racism, sexual assault or religious extremism often forces the team to balance their ethics, morals and ideals with the reality of their jobs, which makes for very tense moments. That tension forms a solid contrast for the laughs, which are just as effective as the drama.
As with all Sorkin projects, it's the words that the characters speak that are the fuel the show thrives on, and Sports Night is where Sorkin and his frequent collaborator Thomas Schlamme developed the Walk-and-Talk to perfection, while mastering how to make language into action. The main setting is excellent for emphasizing the chattiness, with Dan and Casey on the set and the rest of the crew in the separate control room. This makes talking the focus, as they communicate over microphones and everyone has a role to play in the situation, so everyone has something to say. Occasionally, the dialogue can feel a bit forced, like when they do the repetition bit ("He can't kick,") but it moves so quick, you'll quickly find yourself in the midst of something new.
For as good as Sorkin's scripts are, they are also incredibly dense and paced like an intricate dance number, which requires a cast capable of making them work. Here, that's not a problem, as Sports Night boasts one of the best large ensembles ever on TV, and two amazing leads in Krause and Huffman. How many shows can go six deep into the line-up and come up with a Malina or Guillaume? That doesn't even account for the support team, where you get memorable performances in limited time from Kayla Blake and Greg Baker, among others. Then there are the guest stars, where you find Ted McGinley, Ray Wise, a pre-House Lisa Edelstein and the pre-Meet the Parents Teri Polo. Every episode is a masterclass in acting, and the heated exchanges between Casey and Dana should be studied to see how face-to-face acting should be done.
The four discs holding the 23 first-season episodes are packed in a pair of dual-hubbed clear ThinPak cases, which are held by a thin cardboard slipcase. Get through the nice animated, full-frame menus, themed on the show's control room, offering only a play-all option and episode selections, and you see the episodes are spread over the first three discs, in the same 8-8-7 structure as the original release, while the fourth disc has the new featurettes. There are no audio options and no subtitles, though closed captioning is available.
For anyone wondering, content-wise, this is the exact same four discs that start the complete series set.
I hoped there'd be some improvement in the six years between releases, but it looks like the same transfers were used for both releases. The full-frame image is good, but not great, with acceptable color and detail, but there's some excessive grain in places (check out the frequently used footage of the Twin Towers for a clear example) and the transfer can be a touch soft as well. The titles and credits also have issues, looking far more digitized and jaggy than a show from 1998 should look.
The audio is delivered in the same Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks offered in 2002, which means they have a standard TV presentation, without any kind of dynamic mixing. The dialogue, easily the show's most important element, is clean and clear though, which makes it a solid bit of audio.
The first complete collection offered zero in terms of extras, so here's where this set had to deliver to justify a purchase. The first fix comes in the form of five solid audio commentaries, from a quality blend of participants. Sadly, we don't get a Natalie-Jeremy track (Malina isn't heard from until season two's extras) and there's no Huffman or Guillaume heard either. What we do have is an excellent track by Schlamme and Sorkin that again shows where their series' energy comes from, a mini cast track, a niche commentary from editor Janet Ashikaga, who won an Emmy for the episode she discusses, a supporting-cast spotlight (full of fun gossip) and an interesting bit of perspective from two excellent participants. What is actually hear well outweighs what may be missing and makes the five commentaries a valued addition to the set.
Here's the breakdown:
"Pilot" - Schlamme and Sorkin
"The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee" - Charles, Krause, Lloyd and director Robert Berlinger
"Small Town" - editor Janet Ashikaga
"Sally" - actors Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Timothy Davis-Reed and Ron Ostrow
"Eli's Coming" - Krause and Berlinger
The other extras are a mix of new and found material, all of which any fan of the show will want to check out. Up first is "The Show," a behind-the-scenes look at the show that runs over 33 minutes long. The piece is loaded with new interviews with all of the main cast (with the odd exception of Lloyd, who did a commentary) and much of the crew, and does a great job of crafting the final word on the series. The only problem there is it's not a first-season extra, and leaves less for the second-season DVDs. The next extra is a bit shorter, but no less worth watching, as it ties the show to reality, spending 21 minutes comparing Sports Night to its inspiration, SportsCenter, aided by interviews with people really working in the roles seen on Sorkin's series. Seeing the intern who inspired Jeremy's interview from the pilot makes it all worthwhile, though there's plenty more to enjoy in this featurette.
The found content is just as interesting as the new stuff, mainly because it's pretty rare, starting with a nearly 12-minute gag reel cut for the wrap party that's mostly disappeared, as a note at the beginning indicates. It's VHS quality footage, but it's fun stuff, made up of screw-ups, goofing around and dancing. The set seems like it was a fun place, and there's a lot of silly stuff here to enjoy as a result, especially from Malina, who loves to put on a silly face. It's followed by four original promos for the series, which can be viewed separately or in a 1:37 chunk. Having never seen them before, they are a cute watch, as they were shot especially for the ads, even if they aren't up to the quality of the series. The first one's Guillaume gag was probably the best of the bunch.
The Bottom Line
It had been a while since I had watched Sports Night, but it holds up remarkably well, and is as fun and enjoyable as I remember it from when I first watched it. Thankfully, Shout! Factory continuing to do their civic duty to the DVD community, improving on the original collection, offering up extras that fans will certainly want to check out, as they actually offer something of interest. If the complete set was too big an investment, this smaller slice offers you the chance to catch up with old friends on the set of Sports Night.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.