A good story works its way into your system. But every fiction fan has a few immunities, aesthetic antibodies that will always reject a certain storytelling strain - a particular genre, character type, plot device, whatever - notwithstanding the quality of its execution. You might be congenitally incapable of enjoying a conspiracy plot, or a brooding bad boy character, or anything remotely science fiction-y, no matter how skillfully or originally it's handled. That's a normal aspect of fandom.
I think that's why "will they/won't they?" relationships just don't register with me. To me, this sort of storyline is only able to sustain dramatic momentum by relying on behavior that ranges from implausible to baffling. Do people often behave in implausible and baffling ways, especially when addled by the hormone charge of attraction? Sure. Again, this sentiment isn't rooted in dispassionate criticism, nor could I fairly say that exceptions don't or can't exist. But as a rule of thumb, an extended will they/won't they story is likely to bounce off me like a Nerf pellet.
Which brings us to this point in season one of Sports Night, in which the Dana-Casey-Gordon triangle acquires a fourth side in the person of Sally Sasser: producer of CSC's "West Coast Update" broadcast, professional rival of Dana, and aggressive suitor of Casey. We first met Sally in "Shoe Money Tonight," but it's in "Smoky" that her designs on both Dana's job and her lead anchor begin to rev up.
"Smoky" divides its time pretty evenly between the workplace arc and the romantic arc. In one thread, Isaac decides to begin grooming Dana to succeed him as managing editor, which quickly snowballs into office-wide rumors of his eminent departure. In the other, neither Sally's advances nor Dan's advice can penetrate the fog of Casey's dating obliviousness.
The problem with introducing Sally as a new complication is that the show has to force-feed us a sense of what a horrible person she is, mostly through Dan. His repeated remonstrations to Casey are entirely out of proportion with what we've seen of Sally so far, and that conversation seems to extend as long as it does only because Sorkin came up with a bunch of hyperbolic insults ("I think she wants to rule all of Metropolis;" "I say she has no reflection;" "she's a Stepford producer") and didn't want to cut any of them.
Even more improbably, Dan also relishes cock-blocking Casey and Sally's extremely tame flirtation. He jibes her for "taking off all your clothes," in response to her presenting Casey literally nothing more than an ankle. Quite the Victorian sense of decorum for our young Mr. Rydell!
What's the upshot of all this? Are we supposed to fault Sally simply for assertively pursuing an attractive, successful, single man? In lieu of any objectionable behavior on her part - or any real character development at all, for that matter - Dan's seemingly baseless revulsion serves as a lazy shorthand: We like Dan, Dan dislikes Sally, therefore we should dislike Sally. She might as well stroll in wearing a sign around her neck reading "ANTAGONIST" in neon letters.
Sally's also cast as something of a bad guy in the other storyline for assertively pursuing a job that she has reason to believe will be open soon: executive producing "Sports Night." A job for which she's at least as qualified as her likely competition (i.e. Natalie), having successfully performed the same role on "West Coast Update." When she pitches herself to Isaac, she confidently touts her accomplishments. She's not maligning or undercutting anyone, she's not trying to nudge Dana out of her current job, and she's not trying to usurp Dana's putative promotion to managing editor. About the only strike against her is a bit of mild brown-nosing (but in her defense, Isaac is wearing a pretty sharp suit).
So, to recap: our "villain" is a successful woman who's interested in dating an available man and in advancing her career by respectable means. I may have to rethink my measured assessment of Sorkin's depiction of female characters.
I'll concede that it makes a certain amount of sense for Dan and Dana - and to a lesser extent Isaac, who fends off Sally's importuning rather genially - to be wary of Sally. Like any core group in a Sorkin show, the "Sports Night" gang is defined in part by its insularity. Interlopers are commonly regarded with suspicion or outright hostility.
But then, Sally isn't really a character - she's an obstacle. Here, she's a reason to shove Casey and Dana into an awkward "practice" flirtation, which starts out amusingly ("My name's Dana, you unbelievable idiot, you've known me for fifteen years!") before descending into a series low point.
I simply cannot abide Dana beseeching Casey, flat-out, "Tell me why you like me better than Sally." It's meant to be a vulnerable moment in which her true feelings come out, but nothing leading up to that point would cause her to completely drop not only her guard but her whole sense of self-possession and utter a line so pathetic. It's not the Dana we've come to know. That such an implausible scene is necessary to advance their courtship underlines the artificiality of that whole premise (and of will they/won't they's generally).
Naturally, this is all forgotten* by the next episode, "Small Town," which ironically goes on to illustrate the one believable reason why these two people do belong together: Their all-encompassing obsessions with their jobs render them pretty much insufferable to anyone else outside the "Sports Night" cabal. Their double date, with Gordon setting Casey up with a colleague, is an extremely rare excursion outside the offices of CSC - the first one so far in the series, I think, excluding Casey's brief clip on The View. It reveals them as quintessential Sorkin characters: only partially functional as human beings when removed from a professional context.
(*Not just forgotten but reversed. Early on, Dana claims Casey's M.O. is that "you'll say something wonderful to me, and I'll melt, and that'll teach me for going out with Gordon instead of you." Weird that she would be bothered, considering THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT SHE ASKED HIM TO DO last week! Argh.)
There's a good deal of comedy here, especially as Felicity Huffman hits just the right level of broadness while playing first jittery and then soused. But the purpose of this mini-fiasco is to begin driving the wedge between Dana and Gordon, and to begin coloring the latter in the same "bad guy" tones as Sally. His brief exchange with Dana towards the end is excessively chilly ("There's some room for improvement."), as if to make sure we don't sympathize with a man who's had to watch his girlfriend spend the course of the evening getting sloppy drunk and flirting with another man - that is, when she wasn't trying to astrally project herself into the "Sports Night" control room.
In the absence of any compelling reason why two characters should be interested in one another, besides being the male and female leads of a show that's on television, Sorkin simply crafts even less attractive alternatives for them. They're pushed together rather than pulled. It's lazy, and it's why the stakes in this arc always feel hollow.
Now contrast this with the A-story in "Small Town." With Dana and Casey half-assing it through an enforced night off, Natalie assumes the lead producer's chair on the eve of the Major League Baseball trade deadline. (Unusually for a sitcom, this sets the episode about seven months ahead of its air date: the baseball trade deadline happens at the end of July; the episode originally aired January 12, 1999.) When the team gets wind of a possible blockbuster deal, they work to chase down the lead in the midst of a live broadcast. Natalie has to decide how to handle breaking a story that could be a major scoop or, if untrue, a major embarrassment.
Unlike a rocky romance that could be dropped in from virtually any other series, a story centering on the day-to-day pressures of journalism stems organically from Sports Night's premise. The stakes here aren't huge, but they're intensely important to the characters, and acutely observed. Natalie has to prove she has the mettle to run a live news show. That means knowing when to trust the instincts of one subordinate, and when to rein in another for flying off the handle. It means taking charge of everyone in the room, even a back-seat-driving boss. And it means green-lighting a risky journalistic gambit in which the potential reward or setback is enormous, both for her and for an also-ran show seeking exposure and credibility wherever it can find it.
As Natalie rises to the occasion, so does Sabrina Lloyd. She gets a lot of notes to play here, and hits them all - relishing a momentary dream come true; staving off her initial trepidation as she processes the trade bombshell; scolding Isaac; bringing the whip down when Jeremy steps out of line. She makes the most of a rare instance in which she serves the story as more than Jeremy's girlfriend or Dana's romantic confidante/irritant.
In a nice, and perhaps unintentionally meta, touch, Natalie even comments on her status as the least-used principal. "What did you think I was around here," she asks Jeremy, "some Gal Friday?" And even though he responds to that question in the negative, we could be forgiven for viewing her as just that up to this point.
Yet although she'll revert to that role in short order, for now she claims her small victory. In "Small Town," the professional is made personal. We buy into the tension, and ultimately the celebration. This is Sorkin playing to the same strengths that animated The West Wing and The Social Network, dramatizing the ambition and competitiveness of supremely capable people plying their trade. I wish that he had trusted this sort of material more often in Sports Night, rather than shoehorning in a pale attempt at screwball romantic comedy.
The highlight reel:
- Casey: "You ever hear of artistic freedom?" Dana: "You ever hear of me kicking your ass?"
- "Dana, I need to move my day along just a little bit faster than this."
- "It's not time to dally with Sally... that was an unfortunate rhyme, but still."
- Sally: "May I give you my credentials?" Isaac: "I see no way of stopping you."
- "I told many, many people."
- "It was very complimentary? Well how good of you to come to tea."
- Dan: "You could be having sex with Yoko Ono right now." Casey: "Please don't ever say that to me again."
- "Our producer, Dana Whitaker, has asked me to fill for fifteen seconds, but I honestly don't have anything to say. She's begging me now. Now she seems pretty mad. You'd all like her a lot if you met her. And that was fifteen seconds."
- "Can I please go home? I love my home."
- "I can't believe I've been standing here talking to you this long."
- Casey: "If there's breaking news, I should be there." Isaac: "To do what?" Casey: "The...things I do."
- "It would've been Ricardo Ricardo!"
- Sign it's 1999: well-off, Type A Dana apparently doesn't own a cell phone.
- Hey, that's Lisa Edelstein, best known as Cuddy from House, as substitute anchor Bobbie Bernstein. She'd pop up again in the Sorkinverse as the call girl/law student Sam befriends in the first episodes of The West Wing.
- Speaking of Bobbie, the hysterical, scorned woman bit feels a little retrograde, but Josh Charles's bug-eyed bemusement as she laces into him right before smoothly resuming anchor mode is a pretty terrific sight gag.
- "You were counting yourself back from commercial in that big, block head of yours."
- "Oh get yourself a real name."
- Natalie: "Right now you can fire me or stay quiet." Isaac: "You're very good."
- "You wanna leave the room? Then allow for the possibility that, from time to time, other people might be at least as smart as you are."
- Bobbie: "You lift a woman's spirits up, and then you just dash them to the ground!" Dan: "Well, that's the only way I can get them to my laboratory." (Bonus points for the five-syllable pronunciation of "laboratory.")