Whilst most people were enjoying The West Wing back at the end of the nineties, few noticed that around the same time, another Sorkin show was airing – Sports Night. Doomed to air for a paltry two seasons, Sports Night focused on the trials and tribulations of a financially struggling TV network, and their sporting news show, the titular Sports Night. Amidst relationship issues, sporting ups and downs, and a general lack of money, the cast and crew of Sports Night had to come together by 11pm each night to air a mostly seamless hour of sporting entertainment.
When my viewing companion and I embarked on a quest to watch Sorkin’s entire TV output, we knew it was a road that would lead us inevitability to the largely forgotten Sports Night. The first challenge was simply finding a way to watch the show – having flown under the radar for streaming, we were forced to hunt down the Region 1 DVDs. Even this proved time consuming, as the average copy was selling for upwards of £100, an exorbitant amount for a mere 22.5 hours of television. Fortunately, eBay came through, and a second hand copy was procured for a mere £30. Now our journey could begin in earnest.
I can’t remember at what point I knew I liked The West Wing, but it was almost certainly within the first few episodes. Not so Sports Night, which starts sluggishly. Initially billed as a comedy, the early episodes contain a jarring laugh track, which is nothing if not out of place. Fortunately, the laugh track is gradually dialled down and then removed, but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
At only twenty-five minutes each, episodes are mercifully short, although binge-watching is still not recommended. At its best, Sports Night is bland and inoffensive – at its worst, it is so toe-curlingly excruciating that you just want to knock the characters’ heads together. The most fun thing you can do with this series is play “spot the Sorkinism”, as you search for plotlines, scenes or even lines of dialogue that are pretty much word-for-word the same as their West Wing counterparts.
But what is it that makes Sports Night so poor? It’s not actually the sport – much as I dislike such pursuits in general, it’s largely fine here. If anything, the fact that the characters have such enthusiasm for sport make it more bearable than it otherwise might be. No, what really gets my back up about the show is its portrayal of both romance and women.
Let’s face it – Aaron Sorkin is not great at writing female characters, and nowhere is this more evident than in the romantic elements of this show. First off, we’ll look at the exploits of Dan Rydell, one of the two anchors of the titular Sports Night. Dan starts off as a reasonably likeable character, right up until midway through season one, when he starts pursuing a coworker named Rebecca Wells.
In fact, Dan’s first encounter with Rebecca is a highly awkward conversation in which he tries to tell her that he wasn’t trying to flirt with her when they met by chance in an elevator, as he’s actually interested in another woman. Of course, no sooner does he say that than he decides that actually, yes, he does fancy Rebecca, and he wants to ask her out. So he does, and she tells him she isn’t interested.
Now, ideally that would be the end of it, but Sports Night is nothing if not a perpetrator of dangerous sexist beliefs. If a woman says no to a man, it can’t possibly be because she genuinely isn’t interested in him – it’s because she needs to be worn down into finally admitting that she does want to go out with him. So, instead of just leaving Rebecca alone, or perhaps trying to be friends with her, Dan spends the next couple of episodes asking her out – not once or twice more, but a total of seventeen times. And of course, eventually she says yes, because all she really wanted deep down was to give Dan a chance to be her boyfriend.
Except things don’t even stop there. It’s gradually revealed that Rebecca’s abusive and horrible ex-husband isn’t really her ex at all – in fact, they are merely separated. After stressing how horrible it was to spend time with him, and how it put her off sports in its entirety, Rebebcca decides to go back to her husband – bitches, eh? She then disappears, only to show up in the final episode, properly divorced, to beg Dan for another chance.
In the meantime, Dan has got up to plenty. He’s revealed his trademark Sorkin daddy issues, become angry and jealous at his co-anchor’s success, and generally squandered any likeability he had to begin with. He even pesters his therapist for dates, and what’s more, she goes along with it instead of throwing him out for misconduct and causing a conflict of interest.
As if that weren’t enough, to top it all off, we have occasional Sports Night co-anchor BobbiBernstein, played by Lisa Edelstein of House and early West Wing fame. Bobbi is introduced to us as a ‘crazy woman’ who is obsessed with Dan, to the extent of apparently falsely believing that they once slept together in Spain. Bobbi is angry because Dan promised to call her after that encounter, but Dan insists it never happened, because he has never been to Spain. Except of course it later transpires that he had indeed visited Spain and slept with Bobbi, he’s just a little lacking in both geographical knowledge and the ability to recognise women with their clothes on.
But enough about Dan and his relationships. Now the time has come to talk about his co-anchor, Casey McCall, and their executive producer, Dana Whitaker. Casey and Dana have known each other forever, and a running theme of the series is that there’s supposed to be this massive sexual tension between them. This revelation is thrust upon us pretty early on, before even the characters themselves have shown an inkling of liking each other, with Dana’s deputy Natalie being desperate for them to get together.
In fact, this doesn’t happen in season one. Even though each is jealous and proprietorial of the other’s relationships (a theme that would be echoed in Studio 60), both Dana and Casey date other people. Dana, unfortunately, chooses poorly, selecting controlling arsehole Gordon (surname unknown) as a potential life partner. Gordon hates Dana’s dedication to her job, but instead of telling him to suck it up or go elsewhere, Dana just puts up with him – because obviously anything’s better than being a single older woman, am I right, ladies? Fortunately, their relationship does end when it turns out that Gordon has been cheating on Dana, but it’s a close-run thing between that and Dana marrying him.
By this point, I had gone from utterly hating having the “Dana and Casey secretly love each other” line shoved down my throat to wishing that they would just get together already. But Sports Night has other ideas. Casey has only ever had one serious relationship in his life up to this point, and Dana insists that he play the field a little before they settle down together. Naturally, this insane plan backfires, as instead of getting dating ‘out of his system’, Casey actually falls for one of the girls he goes out with. He doesn’t stay with her, but it’s enough for him to decide that actually, he’s emotionally matured beyond wanting to be with Dana.
It probably won’t come as any surprise to learn that Josh Malina plays a prominent role in Sports Night – that of producer Jeremy Goodwin. In addition to being a colossal sports nerd, Jeremy also gets in on the show romance, by going out with the aforementioned Natalie. Actually, this particular relationship is generally acceptable – until the writers spice things up by having them break up. Now alone and generally excluded from team social activities – as largely arranged by Natalie, Jeremy manages to stumble upon a delightful woman in a pub. He immediately clicks with her and all looks well, at least until he learns she works in the adult entertainment industry. Bitches, eh?
Aside from all the romantic antics, in season two, Sports Night does try to have a bit of an overarching plot. With ratings low, a consultant is brought in to help, and everyone hates him – at least until they suddenly like him and are sad that he is leaving. Threats to the network continue to rumble on whilst the characters all deal with their own issue, and as the season nears a close, it seems as if Sports Night (the show within the show) is destined to be cancelled. As it turns out, even though the real world Sports Night is indeed cancelled, in the world of the show, a mysterious benefactor shows up at the last minute to buy the network and save Sports Night. It’s a plot twist so hackneyed it’s almost embarrassing.
When I look back on Sports Night, the rose-tinted glow of fading memory assures me that it can’t possibly be as bad as I remember. Yet, I know that I definitely did not enjoy watching it at the time, and I certainly can only recommend it to the most dedicated of Sorkin fans. You know who you are.