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'Sports Night' one of best players in season's starting lineup

Tuesday, September 22, 1998

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

Each fall, those of us who watch TV for a living beg and plead with viewers to tune into a show that may not immediately appeal to a broad enough audience to keep it on the air.

    TV Preview: "Sports Night"

When: 9:30 tonight on ABC

Starring: Josh Charles, Casey McCall, Felicity Huffman, Robert Guillaume


This year's show is "Sports Night," premiering tonight at 9:30 on ABC.

Smart writing, talented actors playing realistic characters and a pace and cinematography reminiscent of HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" or "Arli$$" make "Sports Night" one of only a handful of new series that warrant viewer attention.

There's just one problem: It's a half-hour series that bears more resemblance to a drama than a sitcom.

With the exception of "The Wonder Years," programs of this nature don't survive long on the broadcast networks. Prime example: "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" went to Lifetime for its last two seasons of original episodes when the show got axed by NBC.

To make matters worse, ABC entertainment president Jamie Tarses is insisting on use of a laugh track, which comes and goes sporadically because "Sports Night" has so many dramatic moments. (An unwritten prime-time rule: All half-hour shows, except animated comedies like "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," must have background laughs.)

"Sports Night" goes behind the scenes of a daily sports news show akin to ESPN's "SportsCenter." But "Sports Night" is not a program about sports. Sure, some of the dialogue makes more sense if you know who John Starks and Patrick Ewing are, but that's immaterial to the story of the "Sports Night" characters. US magazine describes "Sports Night" as a show for "sensitive jocks," but it has the potential to appeal to a much broader audience.

Josh Charles stars as Dan Rydell, who anchors "Sports Night" with Casey McCall (Peter Krause from "Cybill"), a newly divorced dad who has trouble picking up the pieces of his life in tonight's pilot. His lack of enthusiasm brings down the sportscast, much to the consternation of the "network suit" (re: corporate bad guy) responsible for "Sports Night."

The network is close to firing Casey, but producer (and possible future love interest) Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) defends him to her boss, executive producer Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume).

"It's your call, Dana, but pretty soon it's going to be my call," Jaffee says. "Because here's the thing: I'm not going to let it be their call."

Series creator and writer Aaron Sorkin, who earned admiration from critics and film audiences alike for his screenplays of "A Few Good Men" and "The American President," thinks a laugh track is wrong for "Sports Night."

"For some of us the laugh track was actually interfering with our enjoyment of the show," Sorkin said at a press conference with TV critics this summer in Pasadena, Calif. One day later at an ABC press party, Sorkin came out of a huddle with Tarses and said "Sports Night" would have a laugh track.

"My gut is still no laugh track, but I'm listening to very bright people who say [there should be a] laugh track," Sorkin said. "So I'm going to go with them for a while. We're going to reassess the situation after six episodes."

Most of the show's cast, including "Benson" veteran Guillaume, were anti-laugh track, too.

"If I were to be perfectly honest, I would say I don't like laugh tracks," Guillaume said. "But I'd rather have laugh tracks than nothing where there's supposed to be a laugh."

No worries about that with "Sports Night." There's plenty of humor, but be prepared for a show that's predominantly drama.

The laugh track is absent in tonight's first scene set in a hectic control room just before air time. This opening salvo is probably the fastest-paced depiction of real-life workplace chaos since the premiere episode of "ER."

It's so well choreographed with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, to insert canned laughter would be wrong.

After viewing a revised version of tonight's show and next week's episode, I'm actually less concerned about the laugh track issue than I once was. True, the laughs are sporadic, and I still think the show would be better off without them altogether, but great care has been taken to make sure they're not overly intrusive.

In both episodes the laughs primarily come during scenes with associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) and the new research analyst on staff (Josh Malina), whom she has a crush on. This storyline warrants a laugh track more than any other, but it's also a bit of a revelation in TV: a cute girl who likes a semi-nerdy guy.

Avoiding clichés (except maybe the network meanie) is a hallmark of "Sports Night." Unlike last night's "Brian Benben Show," there are no dumb anchors to be found anywhere.

"Having any character who is a fool makes your life just a little more difficult in terms of either comedy or drama," Sorkin said. "If it's a straw man that you can knock down, it's not much fun. We really have no Ted Baxters on this show. Everybody can be smart. Everybody can be dumb."

Kind of like real people.

Sorkin said he chose to mix comedy and drama because he doesn't "really do either one of them well enough to do only one of them. My fastball isn't fast enough, and my curve ball doesn't break enough."

He's being modest, because the truth of it is real life has equal doses of humor and drama, and Sorkin is bringing that reality to "Sports Night." He's also pulling a reverse "Ally McBeal," which caught fire with critics and viewers for adding large doses of comedy to a one-hour drama.

With "Sports Night," Sorkin is simply doing the reverse, and doing it well.

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