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Redundant 'Sports Night' loses its momentum

Thursday, March 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV Editor

Remember back in September when I begged you to watch ABC's comedy-drama "Sports Night"?

Never mind.

No, I haven't done a complete 180-degree turn and decided "Sports Night" is junk, it's just not as good as I once hoped it could be. It's still smart, it's still sophisticated, but it's become unbearably redundant.

Even as I praised "Sports Night" in September and again in December, there was always something about the show that bugged me, something I couldn't put my finger on.

I finally figured it out.

During a visit to the show's Burbank set at the Walt Disney Studios in January, I got a chance to flip through a "Sports Night" script. As I read the dialogue, I wasn't sure which of the sports anchors was Dan and which one was Casey. I kept flipping to the show's credits to see that Peter Krause plays Casey McCall and Josh Charles stars as Dan Rydell.

Why couldn't I picture which actor played which character? I couldn't blame a faulty memory, and I've seen every episode. Then I realized what had been bugging me: All the characters on "Sports Night" sound the same. They all speak with the same voice. It's the voice of series writer/creator Aaron Sorkin.

The volleying word play is enjoyable, but there's so much emphasis on words that characterization gets sacrificed. At this point only Robert Guillaume's Isaac and Joshua Malina's Jeremy sound like individuals.

Dana (Felicity Huffman) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) and Dan and Casey lob witty bon mots back and forth, but viewers have little idea about who these people are, what makes them tick, why we should care about them (Dan and Casey are particularly bland). All they do is talk, and too often the talk is just a variation of what the last person said.

In last week's show an unknown tennis player rallied against Pete Sampras, delaying the fictional sports news show. This led three different characters to exclaim some form of the phrase, "He will not die," seven times in the first six minutes of the episode.

I still want to like "Sports Night," and I'm relieved NBC will move "Will & Grace" to Thursday night in a few weeks, giving "Sports Night" a better shot at success. With so many of us TV critics slobbering over "Sports Night," though, I have to wonder if people have already tuned in and dismissed it.

Yesterday Variety reported "Sports Night" has been renewed for next season, a surprise since the renewal comes after last week's episode of the series drew the fewest number of viewers ever for a new episode of the show.

For the folks working on "Sports Night," ratings aren't that important.

"Word of mouth really does have to work its course," Sorkin said in January on the "Sports Night" set. "All ABC wants is to keep a good show on the air and it will take care of itself. Of course they want more viewers - NBC wants more viewers for 'ER.' "

Perhaps the most disorienting thing about "Sports Night" to newcomers is its dramatic tone, which is not what viewers have come to expect from half-hour TV shows that are almost always comedies.

"People say, 'Is it a comedy or a drama?' and to me it feels more like a drama," Sorkin said. I agree, which makes some of the meant-to-be-funny wordplay seem forced and unnatural. The drama - whether it's Natalie dealing with the aftermath of sexual harassment or Casey realizing Dana's boyfriend is cheating on her - rings the most true.

The show's strongest asset, Guillaume as executive producer Isaac Jaffee, suffered a mild stroke in January. Staffers at the sports show will learn Isaac suffered the same fate in the March 30 episode. Guillaume - and Isaac - will return for the season finale in May.

Despite the dramatic nature of "Sports Night," it still has a laugh track, albeit an understated, rarely used laugh track. Last summer a lot was written about whether the series should have canned laughter and be filmed in front of a live audience. Sorkin didn't want it, ABC did. ABC won.

Producers managed to drop the studio audience, which they found distracting, but the canned laughs continue - at least for now.

"I think we are slowly but surely phasing out the laugh track," Sorkin said. "My hope is one day ABC will come to us and say, 'You don't have to use the laugh track,' and we can say to them, 'We actually stopped using it six months ago.' "

The laugh track doesn't bother me anymore, certainly not as much as the machine gun dialogue that does little to reveal the characters.

The folks at "Sports Night" need to spend more time creating characters viewers will care about than witty banter that's a means to no good end.


Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com



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