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Focus | A TEAM APPROACH

That Sporting Life

September 20, 1998|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Holed up several years ago in a Los Angeles hotel room, rewriting his screenplay for "The American President," Aaron Sorkin would work all night and then, to unwind, watch ESPN's "SportsCenter" at 6 in the morning.

Sorkin found himself increasingly drawn to the seeming camaraderie of the anchors on the 24-hour sports cable network. He got to know their names and grew familiar with their banter, the way they would deliver sports peppered with witty asides. He imagined that behind the scenes, "SportsCenter," headquartered in Bristol, Conn., was like an extended family, a group of people united in the meaningless but passionate cause of sports.

"I thought, 'This is the kind of place I could meet by best friend and my girlfriend,' " Sorkin says.

The kind of place, in other words, that could work as a setting for a sitcom, called "Sports Night," which premieres Tuesday night on ABC following "Spin City."

"Sports Night," produced by Imagine Television in association with Touchstone Television, is a noteworthy edition to the fall schedule for several reasons, chief among them that it's an ensemble comedy, with only one familiar face and no ostensible lead character. Peter Krause and Josh Charles play anchors Casey McCall and Dan Rydell, respectively, while the co-stars include Felicity Huffman, Robert Guillaume and Joshua Malina.

Collectively, the "Sports Night" gang hustles to put a show together each week--forever harried and putting out fires around the office, the comedy running alongside the drama.

The creators of the show are hoping word-of-mouth gives "Sports Night" its momentum out of the gate this fall, because with the exception of Guillaume, known to audiences for his roles in "Soap" and "Benson," "Sports Night" doesn't have any stars to help promote it. And while past shows set in newsrooms have had main characters (Murphy Brown, Mary Richards, to name two), no one here is the focal point.

"I think Aaron's doing something smart with this show--he's sharing storylines with everyone," says Krause, who plays co-anchor McCall.

The behind-the-scenes feel of the show, coupled with the snappy pace of the dialogue, has earned "Sports Night" favorable buzz from TV critics and even elicited comparisons to "Broadcast News" and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show."

But it's also led to some confusion about the show's identity (is it a comedy or drama?) and whether the show should have a laugh track (it will).

Sorkin knows that it may take time for "Sports Night" to build an audience, but he's convinced that the show can find fans, even those who couldn't care less about sports. Although the show is set in a world where people eat, sleep and breathe the latest scores and statistics, "Sports Night" does not require the viewer to understand the intricacies of, say, baseball's infield fly rule.

On the other hand, isn't Sorkin worried that viewers, particularly women, will see the title and picture a show for the Sunday afternoon couch potato set?

"I've seen myself quoted as saying this [show] isn't just about sports," Sorkin says, taking a break between story meetings on a recent day at the "Sports Night" set. "But in fact, this show isn't about sports at all."

Well, maybe it's just a little bit about sports.

But, argues Huffman, who plays "Sports Night" producer Dana Whitaker, "did you have to know politics to like 'Murphy Brown'? What you're watching is stories. Aaron's avoided the stereotypes by writing complex, truthful, three-dimensional characters."

"Sports Night" comes with a pedigreed production team. The show is co-produced by Imagine Entertainment, whose principals include Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the team behind HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon" as well as the Howard-directed films "Apollo 13" and "The Paper."

Sorkin comes to TV from the features world, too. In addition to writing "The American President," he adapted his own play, "A Few Good Men," to the screen. While a novice to the process of running a television show, Sorkin has been able to adjust quickly to the conventions of sitcom writing.

"I'm fairly religious about the rules of storytelling and drama," he says. "When you have to tell a story in 21 minutes and 45 seconds, the trick is finding small, manageable stories to tell."

Sorkin feels he's found just the sort of actors to deliver his vision--theater-trained and accustomed to ensemble work. Sorkin, in fact, knew Malina and Krause from his New York theater days, and he was familiar with Huffman's work with the Atlantic Theater Company. Though they're not stars, Sorkin says, they are "the exact kind of very smart

One thing "Sports Night" won't have, Sorkin says, is real-life celebrities making cameo appearances. "I'm not a big fan of stunt casting," he explains.

Sorkin's actors, meanwhile, are big fans of his writing--a subject they return to over and over in interviews about the show.

"I think it's a very literate show--is that a bad word?" jokes Guillaume, who on "Sports Night" plays executive producer Isaac Jaffee. "I took one look at [the pilot script] and said, 'I'd like to say these words. I'd like to test myself against that writing.

"Come to think of it," Guillaume adds, "I had the same feeling with 'Soap.' "

"Sports Night" airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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