When a friend of mine first started watching The West Wing, he remarked to me that he was surprised how funny it was. For a lofty political drama - which frequently discussed economic crises, capital punishment, and nuclear disarmament - it devoted a great percentage of its screen time to comedic scenes and side plots. The West Wing, winner of four straight Emmys for Oustanding Dramatic Series, was also one of the funniest prime time shows of its era.
This approach was hardly unheard-of; a number of contemporary dramas also mixed in a heaping helping of humor, including Gilmore Girls, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Veronica Mars. Indeed, most dramatic series try to leaven the weekly tension with a quip here, a comic-relief secondary character there. And, for the most part, audiences accept and expect this.
The converse of this - incorporating dramatic elements into a situation comedy - usually doesn't work as well. With a few notable exceptions - most of them from the Norman Lear stable of social-realist sitcoms of the 1970s - American network comedies frequently struggle to incorporate dramatic elements well. At best they might deliver an emotional character moment, affecting partly because of its abrupt departure for the normal tone; at worst, they crap out the infamous Very Special Episode.
Part of the reason that this genre-mingling only tends to work in one direction is the time constraint. When you're dealing with 45 minutes of screen time, you can find a way to fit in a few jokes and even a wacky B- or C-story. In 22 minutes, it's considerably harder to nurture a dramatic storyline or character arc to a believable payoff without sacrificing the requisite laugh lines. And while making room for a comic relief role is a time-honored tradition from Mercutio to Xander Harris, there isn't much precedent for a character serving as dramatic relief, wandering into the midst of the hi-jinks just to bum everyone the hell out.
If time is one key obstacle to keeping drama out of the average sitcom, it's no surprise Aaron Sorkin would flout that convention. The motor-mouths at his command can cram 45 minutes worth of dialogue, jokes and all, into a script half that length, leaving ample time for emotional interludes and political digressions. With Sports Night, the balance shifted from week to week; sometimes you got comedy in your drama, sometimes you got drama in your comedy. He and the cast are talented enough to make it work more often than not, yet there's no denying it defies the expectations of a mass audience. Perhaps that's one reason why Sports Night struggled in the ratings throughout its two-season run.
Two of this entry's episodes - "The Quality of Mercy At 29K" and "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee Tech" - veer decidedly towards the dramatic end of the scale. The other two - "Thespis" and "Shoe Money Tonight" - are among Sports Night's most purely "comic" specimens. Each one shows how the "dramedy" format, in the hands of a confident cast and crew, takes advantage of its inherent versatility to reveal facets of its characters from different angles.
The first thing that's evident in "Thespis" is how, just eight episodes into Sports Night's life, Sorkin is already showing a surer hand at writing gags. The self-consciously jokey exchanges of the early episodes, which felt more Vaudeville than vérité, have mostly vanished. (Even one exchange which does hearken back to the call-and-response style, in which Casey's guesses at the anniversary Dan alludes to all involve Alberto Salazar winning the New York City Marathon, is completely in character because Casey is deliberately being a smart-ass.) "Thespis" dabbles in farce, a style at which Sorkin excels (examples that leap to mind include The West Wing's "big wheel of cheese day" episodes, its C.J.-versus.-the-turkeys subplot in "Shibboleth," and even one of Studio 60's bright spots, "The Christmas Show").
On the heels of the muddled timeline of "Dear Louise...", "Thespis" takes place in real time as the first half-hour of a Sports Night broadcast is beset by a series of wacky calamities. According to Jeremy, this is courtesy of the titular ghost, who in his former life was the first actor in Western history and now haunts performances just for the amusement of himself and, presumably, sitcom viewers. The ensuing mishaps include a broadcast signal outage, Casey ad-libbing the St. Crispin's Day speech on the air, and Dana thawing out a 24-pound frozen turkey in the light grid (naturally, it comes crashing down on the anchor desk at a comically apropos moment, in what I have to assume is the only instance of a Chekov turkey in the history of popular fiction).
Two of the main plot threads are generally funny without being frivolous, managing also to deepen three of the leads. Dana's harried by pressure to impress her mother at Thanksgiving - showing, rather than telling, the "something less than brilliance" exposited in the previous episode (and, thankfully, doing so outside of a romantic context). Dan and Casey's dispute, besides offering a glimpse into their past, underscores the contrast between Dan's emotional openness and Casey's caustic guardedness. Sorkin's often accused of making his characters interchangeable ciphers, but the Sports Night anchor tandem doesn't succumb to the common pitfalls of partners in fiction. They're neither mirror images nor a starkly antipodean "odd couple." These two have a great deal in common, as well as a few points of tension, just as you'd expect friends and partners of several years would.
The dichotomy is more bluntly, and somewhat less effectively, observed in "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee Tech." Casey's self-involved-ass mode is operating in high gear, as his obliviousness to the identities of Sports Night's support staff sets off nerves. He mostly humors Dan's admonishment that he learn the names of, for instance, the camera operators. But later, Casey's appearance on The View (ABC corporate synergy FTW!) indirectly leads to much soul-searching, as appearances on The View are wont to do.
A fawning Star Jones praises Casey's on-air fashion sense (his neckties are evidently "famous," despite not boasting garish patterns or dancing robots or any other Craig Sager-ish traits). Casey tacitly accepts the compliment, which arouses the ire of assistant wardrobe supervisor Monica (a pre-Donna Janel Moloney). Her boss, a woman named Maureen, is the trained professional responsible for Casey's sartorial splendor, and Monica calmly calls him to the carpet for not giving credit where it's due. Luckily, being on television every night gives him a chance to redress the wrong, and then some, with a holiday-season shout-out to all the little people behind the scenes.
Dan, meanwhile, is playing Jiminy Cricket to Issac, inverting the usual role of Sports Night's elder statesman and moral compass. A few college football players have been suspended for protesting the Confederate flag's presence outside their stadium (another topic with ripped-from-the-headlines overtones). Luther Sachs - head of Continental Sports Channel and an influential alumnus of the school in question - wants Sports Night to air a bit of pro-flag fluff. Issac's disgusted but reluctant to oppose it, believing that Sachs is itching for a reason to oust him from the job he loves. Dan persuades him that such an event would be greeted by a mass protest from the show's staff. As we've seen before (earlier in this very episode, lecturing Casey about the value of teamwork) and will see again, Dan Rydell believes in the power of loyalty to right any ship.
Here are the essences our two leads: one frequently arrogant and self-centered but fundamentally decent; the other filtering through aloof humor an unabashed faith in, and need to connect with, others. Another typical Sorkin dichotomy is also at work: the juxtaposition of a personal, small-scale drama with a broad, politically-charged one. There's nothing subtle about either; each centers on a stinging monologue meant to shame its subject into Doing the Right Thing. Credit goes to both performers for keeping them from feeling too heavy-handed. Moloney's small, measured tones don't diminish a genuine empathetic hurt, and Robert Guillaume's gravelly oration was custom-made for Sorkin's ponderous, Latin-tinged speechifying.
Small gestures that enrich man and mankind alike form the basis of the Gospel According to Sorkin. This is at the heart of his best work, and though in an irony-soaked age any stab at earnestness is often seen as cloyingly naive, Sports Night (like The West Wing) was quick to acknowledge that criticism and quicker to dismiss it. He brings it all together in the refrain of "look at what we can do" throughout "The Quality of Mercy At 29K." Whether it's scaling the peak of Mt. Everest, creating art that can surprise and move people, or presenting a small kindness to a needy soul, the characters aren't ashamed to marvel at the good human beings (i.e., "we") are capable of. (Thematically, the episode has a strong West Wing counterpart in "Galileo.")
And here, yes, the characters do begin to sound like ciphers. Every one is a boundless optimist, eager to spin a lofty soliloquy about humanity's general awesomeness. As much as anything in Sorkin's canon, this half hour embraces the Platonic ideal of liberal utopianism. A sometimes-liberal-utopian myself, I tend to fall for it. Call me a traitor to my ironic generation if you must, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that our species went to the moon, wiped out smallpox, produced Shakespeare and Beethoven. We can do some pretty amazing things, and there's nothing hokey or childish about recognizing that.
Yet these moments don't always serve the characters particularly well. Dan, for instance, is agonizing over which charities to donate to - overwhelmed by the number of worthy causes, he's paralyzed by the notion that any action would be woefully inadequate. It's a relatable problem, even for those of us without TV-star levels of disposable income, but it mostly plays like a series of public service announcements. When Natalie (as underused as ever here) answers his concerns with a pep talk that culminates in "You know what the trick is? Get in the game!" I half-expect to see NBC's "The More You Know" comet swoop in over her head.
On the other hand, Dana's flabbergasted response to the Broadway musical of "The Lion King" shatters her anti-theater cynicism and gives Felicity Huffman a delightfully effervescent scene. And Jeremy's surge of bravado befits a newly lovestruck man, even though it stems from a scene where Jeremy and Natalie agree that maybe they should date for real, something like a month and a half after they divulged their feelings and he cooked her dinner and fell asleep in her lap and they actually kissed, none of which counted, I guess? Honestly, I'm amazed anyone in the Sorkinverse ever gets laid at all.
The Jeremy-Natalie romance is another narrative better served by comedy than by straight drama. In "Shoe Money Tonight," the couple is in the midst of their first fight, and the tension plays out during a late night poker game in the conference room. This mostly takes the form of some sharply funny bickering, which works precisely because it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual source of the fight. Jeremy played tennis with an attractive female friend instead of spending his day off with Natalie, who apparently spent that day reading the Sitcom Girlfriend's Guide to Relationship Troubles. As long as this plot device remains in the background, their sniping shows us a fun new dynamic. Once the tone shifts to the dramatic, the material can't help but feel well-worn and overdone.
Even more amazing? "Shoe Money Tonight" shows that, yes, even the Casey/Dana quasi-flirtation works when it stays light-hearted - and when it totally subverts its premise by remembering that Casey is far too pompous and myopic to ever be a match for a perceptive perfectionist like Dana. Here she gets to smack him around a little bit, which is always fun. A flustered Casey is the funniest kind (..."I have done something wrong, but for the life of me...").
Unfortunately, we're about to enter the first prolonged stretch of Casey/Dana-centric stories. In those episodes, the careful equilibrium between comedy and drama falters. In my recollection, the jokes remain funny, but they get crowded out. This, it strikes me, is the great hazard of a drama-tinged sitcom. Sometimes a single story arc starts to dominate the proceedings, at the expense of the comic moments and smaller personal stories that more effectively shape the characters.
The highlight reel:
- "I fear not ghosts, I fear them not!"
- Jeremy's encyclopedic knowledge of all things nerdy extends to Greek mythology.
- "Geez Danny, that night in Minneapolis with the Jagermeister, we didn't do anything untoward, did we?"
- Continuity alerts: The arrest of fictional NBA player Jason Grissom mentioned in the pilot has advanced to the arraignment stage by the time of "Thespis." Dan's suspension due to his controversial interview in "The Apology" is ongoing in "Six Southern Gentlemen."
- "So you say a few words. You make a gesture. You remember an important date. Small price to pay for what you get in return. For what you get in return, it's a steal. The rest is all vanity."
- "If I shot you out of a missile silo, you'd have to go 29,000 feet in order to clear the peak of Everest, land on a pile of rocks in Tibet, and shut the hell up."
- "My portfolio's pretty much tied up in food and shelter."
- Issac procures Dana's tickets to the "Lion King" musical. Robert Guillaume, you'll remember, was a voice actor in the original film version.
- "By the way, none of us here have eaten, so if you happen to be walking by the building with a pizza..."
- "While we're gone, if any talking animals ask you to buy tacos or beer - for God's sake, do what they tell you."
- "Not only that, but it was like half an hour ago and we're still talking about it."
- "You know someone named Judy Rooty-Tooty?"
- "Natalie, you owe me, like, $700,000. I'm basically your landlord at this point."
- "You've lost a lot of money to me tonight. You're basically going to be living the rest of your life on a charitable grant from the Jeremy Goodwin Foundation."
- Issac: "Danny, I have to talk to you." Dan: "Good, because I have to talk to you too. Who should go first?" Issac: "Since I don't really care what you have to say, I think it should be me."
- At one point Jeremy dubs NASCAR "the world's most popular sport." It's plausible that it's America's most popular sport (or was in 1998), but unless those cars are kicking around a white ball covered in black pentagons, I'm pretty sure this isn't correct.