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News at 9:30: Reprieve for Witty 'Sports Night'

December 06, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's loop the loop time.

Playboy Newt Gingrich attaining pundithood on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel after being rejected by fellow Republicans? World War III erupting in Seattle over something named the World Trade Organization that even most of the media seemed not to know existed? That dopey quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" squatting on ABC and spreading its fat cheeks across prime time?

Oh, the horror.

At least a measure of order and sanity is restored Tuesday when "Sports Night" rejoins ABC, emerging like Lazarus from a month of sleep that some of its fans feared would last even longer. As in forever.

Bury forever this delectably urbane, bittersweet and charming comedy from Aaron Sorkin (who this season also created "The West Wing" for NBC) and its nifty story lines about the co-anchors and production crew of a nightly New York cable series much like ESPN's "SportsCenter?"

Unacceptable.

This is an old story, with low ratings threatening to crush the windpipe of a young series whose achievement elevates it far above the crowd. Although "Sports Night" drew an audience of nearly 10 million when it last aired Nov. 2, for example, that's barely more than an empty house to the big three networks in prime time. Just as telling, "Sports Night" lost nearly 3 1/2 million viewers from its "Dharma & Greg" lead-in.

To ABC, surely, that is unacceptable. It expressed its lack of confidence in second-season "Sports Night" by excluding it from the just-ended ratings sweeps, and the network wasn't saying much about its future. If it had one.

Were things looking ominous or what?

As self-appointed leader of "Sports Night" fanatics, I was prepared to exhort my fellow sports-heads to phone, write, fax and e-mail their support for the series to ABC. You know, really pump it up, kick some butt and scare the feces out of those network executives who, reliable sources say, don't know schlock from Shinola.

Step two?

We'd put on our turtle suits and hit the streets.

Why?

Because it would have been intolerable, utterly deplorable, positively un-American that a series as fine, noble, elegantly filmed, heroically smart and flat-out funny as "Sports Night" could be out on its lovely can faster than you could say Y2K skiddoo.

As it turns out, though, not to

worry, immediately, at least.

ABC has ordered a full season's worth of "Sports Night," and says it will air the series throughout, even though that may require relocating it after December. Better that than dead.

But you know, things rarely work out quite the way you want them to, for the new "Sports Night" that airs Tuesday is not one of its best.

It finds new problems for Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause), who bond both as friends and at the anchor desk. When a baseball superstar caps signing an obscenely rich contract with the Yankees by telling Casey on videotape that he dislikes New York, Casey creates an ethical crisis by unwisely promising the lug to edit out the critical comments. Meanwhile, Dan, who is certifiably neurotic, learns some painful truths about himself during therapy with a psychologist he'd started dating. Is it or isn't it a romance? And if it is, what about her ethical crisis?

A lesser crisis is the episode's scarcity of laughs. And its somewhat melancholy ending doesn't quite work, even though "Sports Night," which has no studio audience or canned laughter, is one of TV's rare comedy-drama hybrids whose writing is so skillfully layered that it needn't be always funny to succeed.

"Sports Night" is so good that this seemingly lesser episode could be another sitcom's best.

At its own best, "Sports Night" is spectacular, with Krause and Charles joined seamlessly as the sleek, clever, assured Casey and the insecure, suspicious, emotionally fragile Dan. With Casey as taunter and Dan as tauntee, this playful rivalry reached hilarious perfection earlier this season in one of the best half-hours of TV in years.

One funny plot line had Casey rigging an Internet popularity poll so that he got 2.5 million votes to a couple a hundred for Dan. That was eclipsed by Dana, the sports show's ever-interesting producer (played with great style by Felicity Huffman), returning exhilarated after removing her panties while dining out.

You had to be there, but trust me, it was a fabulous hoot that extended to the episode's simmering sexual tensions between Casey and Dana, which "Sports Night" uncorked at the start of this season, and another memorable cameo by Huffman's husband, William H. Macy, as an aggressive consultant brought in to juice the show's third-place ratings. "This isn't TV camp," he warned Dan earlier.

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