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Sports Night Hits it Out of the Park

by admin September 29, 2008 4:47 pm
Sports Night Hits it Out of the Park

Ever notice how great things often happen when you're not trying quite so hard? Sports Night is one of those great things. Aaron Sorkin wasn't trying to wow us with social import (like on The West Wing) or culture commentary (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). He was just scripting sparkling dialogue for sparkling actors like Peter Krause (Dirty Sexy Money) and Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives). He was just showing authentic human behavior on a small scale in tight confines.

He was just creating an all-time gem.

Watch the new 10th anniversary Sports Night DVD set and see for yourself. (I know. Tenth anniversary? How can this be?) Sorkin's ABC half-hour originally hit disc back in the format's dark ages -- 2002 -- when bonus features were just that, some extra treat, instead of de rigueur. So the original DVD didn't have any. But look at the eight-disc box out Sept. 30 from Shout! Factory, those affectionate custodians of pop culture.

This set's loaded with goodies treating Sports Night as the tube pearl it is. Not just commentaries (and how did that first Buena Vista set not offer at least this sop for us mad devotees?). Not just gag reels and promos. Not just a swell 32-page booklet with broadcast dates/credits, cool pix, smart script quotes, diagrams of the studio set, and an introductory essay by creator Sorkin.

No, this time we're lavished with two entire bonus discs of new goodies that exalt both the show's critical feats and its sheer viewing pleasure -- a 34-minute retrospective of scenes and reminiscences chronicling the show's development from beginning to end; an engaging 26-minute chat with Sorkin and director-producer Tommy Schlamme looking back at their creative partnership; a 21-minute comparison of the show's cable sports channel and real life's ESPN by staffers from both; a 21-minute look at Sports Night's technical challenges and innovations; and more -- all just as richly, densely satisfying as the series they're surveying.

And just as smart. Sorkin says at one point how much he loves the sound and feel of "smart people arguing." Sports Night fans should love the sound and feel of these bonus features, which smartly explore how the show's distinctive style took shape. Though it debuted on ABC in 1998 as a half-hour "sitcom," the show resonated as anything but -- utterly unique in its dialogue, pacing and exuberant zest. Sorkin's writing created rhythms of verisimilitude that Schlamme vibrantly visualized, as Sorkin profusely credits him in these extras.

"He wanted it to be a place that felt a certain way, a place where we can do certain things, where we can have scenes travel from one end of the place to the other and go five pages," says Sorkin, describing the walk-and-talk style that blossomed into the duo's trademark with their next project, The West Wing. Even for the pilot, "he was already envisioning these Steadicam shots, very unusual in half-hour television. He was already envisioning ways to make a multicamera show look like a single-camera show."

Wait. You mean it wasn't a single-camera show? That's the kind of oh-yeah realization you get every minute or two in these extras, providing the same visceral rush the episodes did. You didn't watch Sports Night, you felt it -- all that energy, emotion, intelligence. And these DVD extras exhibit that same exhilaration.

"It was like reading a piece of music," Schlamme says of encountering Sorkin's original Sports Night script. "This piece of music actually had much more movement to it, so that it needed the sort of energy that the show sort of found."

Just as music can transport you directly to a time, place or emotion, these episodes and extras spark the heart. Why don't we see more series that soar like this? Well, why is this web site called Brilliant But Cancelled? Network TV shows generally just aren't dedicated to smart people who feel real, to natural situations that shake or break your heart, to unaffected laughs that reverberate from deep within. They're mostly designed to shrewdly kill time between the commercials. Many show creators try hard to work within that structure, yes, but they aren't always able to -- and they don't usually have the talent of Sorkin and Schlamme to begin with.

And, frankly, this pair and their Sports Night cohorts weren't trying to be profound or classic, or anything like that. They weren't trying "hard." They were creating the kind of show they'd like to see, portraying people they'd like to hang out with, in situations that felt more authentic than "important." They were flying under the radar, too, as just a little comedy show that nobody much had huge hopes for.

Good thing, commercially, since Sports Night never was a Nielsen smash, barely surviving two seasons. And, as it turns out, good thing artistically, too, since we now have these 45 episodic gems to savor whenever. Sometimes, enough is enough, especially when it's done so right. The Sports Night crew tried just hard enough.

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