Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, once wrote “Genius is never understood in its own time.” It’s only after the passage of time and learned perspective that we often appreciate art. Twenty years ago this month, a television show that was simultaneously one of the medium’s greatest failures and greatest achievements made its debut: the pilot for Sports Night premiered on ABC on Sept. 22, 1998.
Sports Night lasted only two seasons but its impact lives on. It’s one of the most influential shows of the past quarter century. It helped change the way we look at TV and lay the groundwork for creator Aaron Sorkin’s more popular and successful shows (The West Wing and The Newsroom). Those programs won more awards, had bigger budgets and drew bigger ratings. But the fundamentals of good storytelling, sharp dialogue mixed with characters you care about will always make Sports Night the superior show.
It broke free of the shackles of tradition fare by giving us something fresh. In many respects, it was one of the first revolutionary dramedies of the modern age. Sadly, many never understood Sports Night’s genius during its time (1998-2000). It wasn’t until the 45-episode show found new life and a cult following in syndication that people took notice.
Sports Night was ahead of its time and ended before its time. Heck, Mamma Mia 2 flat out stole this joke right from Sports Night!
The basic gist of Sports Night was this: it was a show within a show about a hardscrabble sports highlight show fighting to carve out its own niche. Sorkin described Sports Night as a combination of Broadcast News and ESPN’s SportsCenter. Everyone was highly competent in their jobs but weren’t as self assured off-camera when it came to their own personal lives. The sports anchors Casey (Peter Krause) and Dan (Josh Charles) were obviously modeled after ESPN legends Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann.
When Sorkin conceived the idea of Sports Night, Patrick and Olbermann were two of the biggest stars in sports for ESPN’s premier show. Back in the 1990s, when sports highlight shows mattered, you got your sports information from these guys. They were the most trusted people in sports much like the national news anchor was the most trusted person in America. Sorkin wondered about what their lives were like and crafted a show around that idea.
In Sports Night, Casey was a recent single-parent divorcé who was the more accomplished of the two. He was cerebral and reserved. Dan was younger, hipper and always teasing Casey about how uncool his co-anchor was. Filling out the rest of the cast were producer Dana (Felicity Huffman), her assistant Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), researcher Jeremy (Josh Malina) and the boss Isaac (Robert Guillaume).
Sports Night could have played it straight and stuck to a basic sitcom formula. All wrapped up in 30 minutes complete with a laugh track. Sports Night dared to be different. It wasn’t a comedy and it wasn’t quite a drama. ABC tried to market it as a comedy, even force-feeding in a laugh track early which, thankfully, went away in later episodes.
The whole point of the show was life doesn’t go according to script. Life can be messy and there often aren’t easy or convenient ways to deal with it. That was the source of the fire and friction driving Sports Night. Casey and Dana were in love with each other but didn’t know how to act on their feelings. Natalie and Jeremy’s relationship had stops and starts. Casey and Dan encountered their issues when professional jealousy seeped in.
Along with well-thought out, three dimensional characters, were good storylines. There were episodes that tackled real world problems. “The Apology” was about the unfairness of drug laws and earned Sorkin an Emmy nomination for Best Writing. There were also topics like hunting and the Confederate flag.
Sports Night had distinct characteristics. These trademarks are now known as “Sorkinisms.”
The walk and talks: Extended scenes of characters having a conversation while they transition from one area to another.
The rat-a-tat banter: It’s as if the characters are in a verbal jousting competition. The style harkens back to the lightning-fast exchanges of His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. Sorkin put his own spin on it.
But what truly separated Sports Night from the pack was its habit of including real life incidents into the fictional show. When Guillaume suffered a stroke, his character Isaac also suffered a stroke. That helped explain his absence until Isaac made a dramatic return. It’s a moment filled with raw emotion.
— Michael Grant (@MichaelGrant_CJ) September 24, 2018
Sports Night’s ratings weren’t terrible but it had a hard time finding an audience. That wasn’t good enough for ABC which cancelled the show. Sorkin reportedly had an opportunity to move it to other networks but decidedly to focus on his latest creation: The West Wing – which debuted in 1999. That show, unlike Sports Night, was both a hit with audiences and the critics. It lasted seven seasons for NBC and won 26 Emmys.
But when Sports Night was over, something unexpected happened. Star Trek, which had a three-year run, gained a lot of its popularity in reruns. Sports Night had a similar renaissance in syndication, most notably on Comedy Central. A lot of people who had never seen an episode suddenly discovered this wonderful and witty show. Sports Night became more popular in death than it ever was in life.
If Sports Night came out today, it probably wouldn’t have even been on traditional network TV. It would have been aired on Netflix, HBO, Showtime or cable TV station. It would have survived more than two seasons because of the demand for quality programming.
Sports Night’s legacy? Without it, there wouldn’t have been a West Wing or The Newsroom. It proved that comedy doesn’t need a laugh track or a live studio audience. Many of its alumni went on to do other memorable work, most notably Krause (HBO’s Six Feet Under) and Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives and her Oscar nominated role in Transamerica). Oh yeah, Huffman’s husband had a small role on Sports Night as ratings expert. You might have heard of him: William H. Macy (nominated for an Oscar for Fargo and he’s on Showtime’s Shameless).
Prior to Sports Night, Sorkin was best known for writing A Few Good Men but he was still fairly anonymous to mainstream audiences. Now, Sorkin might be the most famous writer in Hollywood. He is a multi-Emmy award winning and Oscar winning screenwriter. He had been nominated three times, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network.
With Sports Night, Sorkin proved that the most important thing is to develop characters that the audience will connect with. If you do that correctly, your viewers will joyfully follow the plot wherever it goes.
20 years ago, we walked on set young and hopeful – and in my case, green to TV. In honor of #SportsNight’s 20th anniversary, I’ll be sharing some of my most memorable moments. Hope you enjoy these memories as much as I do! pic.twitter.com/vmHYo5Rmet
— Felicity Huffman (@FelicityHuffman) September 22, 2018