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SEASON 1 - "Pilot," "The Apology," "The Hungry and the Hunted," "Intellectual Property," "Mary Pat Shelby," "*The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail," "Dear Louise," "Thespis," "The Quality of Mercury at 29K," "Shoe Money Tonight," "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee," "Smoky," "Small Town," "Rebecca," "Dana and the Deep Blue Sea," "Sally," "How Are Things in Gloca Morra?," "The Sword of Orion," "Eli's Coming," "Ordnance Tactics," "Ten Wickets," "Napoleon's Battle Plan," "What Kind of Day Has it Been"
SEASON 2 - "Special Powers," "When Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Cliff Gardner," "Louise Revisited," "Kafelnikov," "Shane," "Kyle Whitaker's Got Two Sacks," "The Reunion," "A Girl Named Pixley," "The Giants Win the Pennant, the Giants Win the Pennant," "The Cut Man Cometh," "The Sweet Smell of Air," "Dana Get Your Gun," "And the Crowd Goes Wild," "Celebrities," "The Local Weather," "Draft Day: Part I - It Can't Rain at Indian Wells," "Draft Day: Part II - The Fall of Ryan O'Brian," "April is the Cruelest Month," "Bells And A Siren," "La Forza Del Destino," "Quo Vadimus"
by Walter Chaw Taken as a whole, and a box set from Buena Vista allows one to do just that, Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night" takes on the character of an extended experiment that starts tentatively and ends as one of the genuinely valuable moments of television in the year before HBO and flagship show "The Sopranos" became the benchmark for quality boob-tubery in the post-post-modern age. Detailing the behind-the-scenes drama of producing an "ESPN SportsCenter"-esque news program, it draws inevitable comparison to James L. Brooks's Broadcast News (and accordingly, during the first season, episode five, Felicity Huffman gets to knock over a production assistant à la Holly Hunter's character in that film), but distinguishes itself with an understanding that in many ways, sports is an effective locus for the hot-button issues of modern society: misogyny, race, addiction, violence.
Forming the nucleus of the "Sports Night" crew, producer Dana (Huffman), production assistant Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), statistician Jeremy (Joshua Malina), fonder Isaac (Robert Guillaume) and co-anchors Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause) are introduced over the course of the first three or four episodes--which, it's no accident, happen to be the most awkward of the series. Uncertain as to the correct way to market the show, the geniuses at ABC decided to film all of the first season with a jarring laugh track that causes every episode to play exactly like Sorkin's "The West Wing" would play with an automated chuckler. Coupled with the typical stiltedness of a new weekly series doing its best to introduce characters and relationships, the first four episodes prove challenging.
With the fifth episode's (continuing into the sixth) story involving Natalie sexually harassed by a popular sports figure, the show hits its stride: tackling issues not only of sexual assault, but also gender politics in the workplace and, stunningly, the fragility of the male ego. Heady topics, to be sure, when "Sports Night" is right it represents the best of television in that although its revelations aren't always stunning and its execution can be hamfisted, its ambition--the weight of its hubris--is bracing. The potential of television, seldom tested much less honoured, is extraordinarily powerful given the medium's ability to create a closer suture to its character sets and, hence, a deeper connection to its scenarios. Episode eight's "Thespus" theme is as vital and delirious as a Thirties screwball farce; episode ten's poker game presents the blossoming of a love affair between nerdy Jeremy and inexplicably hot Natalie in terms both unique and romantic.
For all the highlights and promise of the first season, "Sports Night" doesn't come fully into its own until its second, and last, season. Jettisoning the laugh track and opening up the show to more complicated camera movements and angles (maybe the laugh track was a live studio audience on prompt), the program, free of the burden of much character introduction and reintroduction, launches itself into Robert Guillaume's real-life stroke and a Network ratings expert played by William Macy (Huffman's real-life husband), who is easily the most compelling semi-recurring character I've ever seen on a network television series. With the release of the entire run in a six-disc DVD package, "Sports Night" represents the hope that, one day, Jay Mohr's Fox series "Action" will find immortality on the format, too.
With little in the way of image-scrub and even less in the way of special features, the 45 episodes of "Sports Night" look fine in the way of a well-produced television show from the late-Nineties, sporting fullscreen (1.33:1), film-to-tape transfers; the 2.0 audio mix is similarly unsurprising. Spread over the course of three keep cases collected in an unattractive yellow cardboard display, even in this resurrection of the series it feels something of an afterthought. The final irony of "Sports Night" is that a program so often interested in the bankrupt machinations of the studio system is (as evidenced by its summary execution and shoddy release) the victim of the great beast Disney even in its afterlife. Originally published: February 22, 2003.