Greatest TV Pilots: Sports Night ‘Pilot’ is Sorkin at his finest

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Sports Night Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Pilot’

Written by Aaron Sorkin

Directed by Thomas Schlemme

Aired 9/22/1998 on ABC

Before The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin wrote a little ABC comedy about a nightly sports show called Sports Night. Like everything Sorkin, it’s long-winded, sappy, critical, and dense as all get out: but it’s also witty, heartwarming – at at its best, inspirational. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the best scripts he’s ever written, able to balance a huge number of characters, introduce them, and establish a complex, developed newsroom rapport -and at the same time, tells a number of highly personal stories about the five characters at the heart of the show.

And Sorkin wastes no time getting into it: the opening scene hits the ground running, with the Sports Night team making last minute preparations for the 11pm show. We met Dana, the show’s executive producer, the guys at the desk controlling the sound and video feeds, Natalie the producer working underneath Dana, and Dan and Kacey – the stars of Sports Night, based on a combination of Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Craig Kilborn, whose broadcasts inspired Sorkin while he was writing The American President.

What the opening scene points out carefully is that while this newsroom appears to be running smoothly, as they try to remember exactly what country Helsinki is in. We don’t know it quite yet, but something is very wrong: and when their boss Issac walks in to check on things, he asks if Kacey’s in a crappy mood. Seconds later, we learn that Kacey’s in the middle of a divorce, one that’s affected his on-air performance of late.

That’s all before the opening credits roll: in a matter of minutes, Sorkin’s established an entire newsroom full of characters, the professional hierarchy between them (everyone answers to Natalie, Natalie answers to Dana, and Dana to Issac) – and that even though things appear to be great, Kacey’s presence hangs in every conversation. But hey, they guy’s going through a divorce, and everybody’s got to get a break once in awhile, right?

It turns out that’s not true for Kacey: the morning staff meeting is one of the pilot’s key scenes, again juggling a ton of narrative balls at the same time. In that meeting, we get a little more insight into JJ (the face of the network), and his dissonant relationship with Issac, the managing editor of the show: he’s a protective boss, the kind that fights the network when they try to step in. Although not a main cast member, JJ is a character who will play an important role in the second half of the freshman season, but in the pilot he exists to put a very real face on the vague statement of “network pressure”, a person who both disrupts the team’s creative process and stands to threaten their jobs if their said process doesn’t bring in the audience.

Sorkin makes it an important point to show how awful the “network” can be sometimes: JJ demands they cut a story about an African runner who had his legs broken for protesting, but has healed and will be running in the World Games at the age of 41. It’s a story of inspiration, perseverance, and love for sport – and JJ wants nothing to do with it, because the 11-17 year old crowd who tune in during the AM don’t want to hear about running. In a way, the scene foreshadows the future of broadcasting: just turn on the Today show or SportsCenter if you don’t believe. Today is just a glorified YouTube channel with dumb celebrities, and SportsCenter is this neutered PR machine for the sports world: how did that happen? The commercialization of news: executives who make decisions based on numbers on a sheet, not what their eyes and brain (and the American people who pay to watch their shows), ultimately commoditizing the news market to the point where it would be unrecognizable to Edward R. Murrow today (even if we could get him to comprehend the internet).

But I digress: Sorkin smartly stays away from presenting his socio-political ideals (about 0.5% of the political hubris we see in The Newsroom, at least) in the pilot, and quickly moves the focus back to his characters. We then meet Jeremy Goodwin, the “super cute” assistant producer interviewee that Natalie’s swooning over. It’s quite a memorable introduction, as a nervous Jeremy screams out exactly the answer Dana’s looking for (“what are you strong sports?” she asks him. “Football” he says, to which she replies “Let’s talk about basketball!”) in the middle of a freak out. As the “new guy” in this bustling machine of sports news, Jeremy’s a nice little anchor for us to hold onto as we learn alongside him how Sports Night makes it to air (though we only get a couple of scenes with him in the pilot – and oddly, none between him and Natalie).

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Of course, Sorkin saves his biggest moments for the four cast members at the heart of the show: Dan, Kacey, Dana, and Issac. Of the four, Dan’s is the most light-hearted, talking about his “New York renaissance” to everyone, coming up with the cheesiest things to do to celebrate the city he lives in (after the show finishes, he tells Kacey he’s going to get a hot dog and ride the Staten Island ferry in the middle of the night, just for fun). But even the young, handsome semi-womanizer has a heart: he’s dedicated to Kacey, even if he’s attacghing himself to a sinking ship. Partners on-air for a decade, the pilot goes far out of its way to show how important their friendship is to each other, especially when Kacey mentions leaving the show.

It’s not that Kacey doesn’t give good reasons – a basketball star arrested and arraigned in court is a sports story hanging around in the background of the episode, and Kacey uses it as an example to say “I’m sick of this” – it’s that they aren’t the right reasons. Dan doesn’t exactly know it, but Kacey’s divorce and the loss of his son (he only sees him Wednesdays and alternate weekends) has sapped him of his inspiration: he’s forgotten why he does what he does, and instead, finds himself grasping for low-hanging fruit as an excuse to back out.

But Dan doesn’t want to back down: the next episode would show us just how stubborn a man he was – but in the pilot, he’s being stubborn because he’s trying to save his friend. He begins yelling at him, a clear sign that a very real fracture may be forming in their relationship as Dan gets in his face and calls him out: but they never finish, when Kim runs onto the set to tell them something amazing’s going on. Remember that African runner (whose name I can’t even begin to spell)? Well, it turns out he’s not only running in the race, but winning it – and at a record pace, circling the last lap to head toward the finish line and the world record.

The newsroom comes alive in that moment, men and women in business attire clapping and cheering for a man they’ve never met. And in that moment, the light comes on inside Kacey. He runs into the nearby office, and calls his ex-wife to wake up his son. “Just watch him run. He’s not doing much, he’s just running faster than any man has run before.”  It’s a big emotional moment, and one that could come off as cheesy with a lesser script – but given the context of his conversation earlier with Dana (“I love doing Sports Night, I get a rush when we’re on air at 11pm that doesn’t come down until 3am… and you’re screwing up my show” she tells him), it puts it all into context for us. Why do something in life if you don’t truly love it? It was a question Kacey thought he had an answer to – but didn’t realize how much he was fooling himself until he saw that man running ahead of the pack, alone, as he headed toward the finish line. They can bend you, but you can’t let them break you: and Kacey finally embraces this, a new man once he sits down next to Dan to begin the show. “It’s not that my teases are better than yours,” he says to Danny, “it’s just that they’re vastly inferior to mine.”

And as the pilot began with the show opening, the pilot closes with the next night’s opening, images that remind us of the cyclical nature of news. The stories may change, but the process remains the same: find the story, write the story, tell the story. And for two beautiful, too-short seasons, Sports Night did just that. People have their allegiences to The West Wing – but for me, Sports Night is Aaron Sorkin’s finest work.

Other thoughts/observations:

– at the very close of the episode, Kacey goes up to Dana and tells her “no one can produce this show but you.” It’s a hint towards their romantic moments later on, but there, it’s a touching moment between friends who’ve been struggling. He hugs her, and she sheds a quick tear before barking out orders to Natalie. Not a moment of weakness for her at all – instead its a moment that shows both her emotional depth and her ability to control it, something most female characters don’t get the chance to do.

– I didn’t talk much about Dana, but it’s Felecity Huffman at her absolute best. She’s intelligent, high-strung, endlessly knowledgable – and most importantly, she’s extremely confident in her job and abilities. Too often we see the women struggle to figure out what they want in life: Dana knows exactly what she wants, and how she plans to get it. Just a fantastic character.

– Kacey explodes on JJ, threatening him with a foot up the ass if the “voice of the network ever comes out of his mouth again.”

– seconds later, JJ begins a comment towards Issac, who points a finger at him and growls: “Don’t take me on.” Robert Guillaume is just terrific on this show.

– Sports Night won 3 Emmys combined between 1999 and 2000: all related to cinametography, either directing or editing. How did this not win a writing or performance Emmy?

– It’s far away, but William H. Macy’s arc in season two produces some stellar episodes.

– Jeremy’s third suggestion for the Knicks: “tell Spike Lee to sit down and shut up?”

— Randy

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.




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