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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sorkin's first television office

'Sports Night' was the writer's template for later series. It's a pleasure to revisit.

October 05, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

"SPORTS NIGHT," which lived for two seasons a decade back, was the first in a trilogy of TV series written by Aaron Sorkin and produced by Thomas Schlamme; "The West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" are, respectively, its more successful and less successful successors. A sitcom set in the offices and studio of a cable-TV sports show, based on "SportsCenter" on ESPN, "Sports Night" is on the face of it the least ambitious of the three.

But it remains my favorite, and the arrival last week of a 10th-anniversary, complete-series DVD package (from Shout Factory), including two discs of bonus material and assorted commentary tracks, is an occasion to remember why. The short answer is that it's spirited and intelligent, full of sentiment but never cheap, because it has been constructed as a sensory experience as much as a collection of dramatic or comedic actions and reactions, and because episode after episode it reliably makes you glad to be alive. And because Felicity Huffman is in it.

Television series don't usually arrange themselves in trilogies. But the pronounced idiosyncrasies of Sorkin's style, and the fact that his three adventures in the medium are fundamentally the same show in structure and theme, make this the exception.

They are all about work, and people who love what they do, and each features a boss who stands between the staff and the unprincipled or mercenary forces that threaten their mission, even if that mission is just putting on a TV show. And they share a fascination with language as form, distinctly if not completely divorced from content.

The shows from Sorkin-Schlamme are what might be called naturalist romances. The warren of offices that made up "The West Wing" was one of television's greatest pieces of stagecraft -- "Studio 60" tried to better it, by adding a second floor. "Sports Night" is the beginning of all that, its soundstage-filling set encompassing a variety of environments that allow for a range of encounters, without ever leaving the office. There are no fourth walls here, and the action flows, via the famous "walk and talk," from one space into another.

Unlike most workplace comedies, which will throw a handful of mute actors into the background to simulate activity, the shows by Sorkin-Schlamme fill their complicated sets with what seems like the number of people it would actually require to get the job done. And also unlike most workplace comedies -- in which the work being done is only superficially relevant -- the details, frustrations and rewards of what people do on "Sports Night" are integral to the action and essential to the themes. A lot of time is spent on the particulars of putting on a show, but that is what these people do, and it's clear that to Sorkin work is exciting. And the sports angle makes available metaphors of accomplishment, defeat and resolution.

Within this hive of activity, the characters try to construct satisfying personal lives that will not interfere with their satisfying professional lives. The workplace shelters a welter of love stories, some of which are romantic and some of which are just, you know, the stories of people who love one another -- between co-anchors Casey (Peter Krause, corn-fed, naive) and Dan (Josh Charles, city-bred, been around); between Casey and executive producer Dana (Felicity Huffman); between sparky senior associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) and neurotic associate producer-research analyst Jeremy (Joshua Malina); between Dana and Natalie, between whom there are no secrets; and between all of them and dream boss Isaac (Robert Guillaume). Every Sorkin show features a dream boss -- the writer is a realist on the surface but a dreamer beneath.

"I've always loved the sound of smart people arguing with each other," Sorkin says in a documentary included with the DVD, "and I wanted to imitate that when I wrote." That sound is intextricable from its substance; it operates as music, a collection of themes and motifs, consonants and vowels, that are tossed around and inverted and repeated with variations from player to player.

Here is a typical Sorkin interchange, reduced to its component parts, A, B and C representing characters.

A: Statement.

B: Statement rephrased as a question. (Do I understand you to say what you just said?)

A: Statement repeated, with different or greater emphasis. (That's what I said.)

A turns to C, repeating the statement as a question and C restates the statement to answer to A. So you might have something like:

A: I'm here.

B: You're here?

A: Here I am. C, am I here?

C: You are here.

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