The Fat Lady Hasn't Sung for 'Sports Night'

by Marvin Kitman
E-mail Marvin Kitman at:

I've been meaning to congratulate Michael Eisner, Stu Bloomberg, Jamie Tarses and whoever else at ABC who had the bright idea and courage not to cancel "Sports Night."

The renewal of the Tuesday night series is such a nice gift for Robert Guillaume, who as Isaac Jaffee, head of the cable sports show "Sports Night," has been on the DL (Disabled List) - as co-host Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) puts it on tomorrow night's season finale. What a sweet characteristic way to describe the fact that Guillaume has been off the show since January when he had a stroke. The return of the most loveable media boss since Lou Grant tomorrow night is one of the most heart-warming moments of the TV year.

It was such a nice gift, too, for the fans of the show, as few as they may be, who had been praying hard for its survival. And they were not being paranoid.

"Why would a network pre-empt a new show to run an established show's re-runs?" wondered Caroline Walsh of South Bend, IN, during the February Sweeps when "Sports Night" was often replaced by wimpy "Dharma & Greg" re-runs.

It's also being benched during the May sweeps.

I'll tell you why.

Despite critics waxing and polishing poetic over what is the hottest show in a season so lukewarm it could hardly heat up a pair of hot shorts, "Sports Night" has been ratings-challenged all season

It's a miracle that it hasn't been sent back to the minors - hanging on, unlike "Secret Lives of Men," that other interesting ABC fall show about the three white guys sitting around whining in between playing some golf. It has been in trouble all the way, like a starting pitcher who is still on the mound with the score 14-1 in the sixth inning.

What is it about the show which, in the opinion of Tom DeMartini of Flushing, "is the closest thing we've had to `Cheers,' a comedy which relies on writing, acting and strong characters rather than slapstick or sexual innunedo," that is preventing it from becoming a monster hit?

"Sports Night" puzzles people. Even I was not very enthusiastic in the beginning. It seemed flat. It took awhile to get used to that horse race-style dialogue as Dan and co-host Casey (Peter Krause) galloped through the studios with non stop patter about the upset in the Kansas-Missouri game, what's so good about vanilla hazlenut coffee and why Dan didn't remember the name of the new sports reporter she thinks he slept with in the minors.

You had to listen, pay attention. That was a knock.

And it didn't have a laugh track telling you when somebody's idea of a joke just happened. "Shows without laugh tracks," explained Famous Kitman Exit Poll member Matthew Corcoran of Hauppauge even before the fall season began, "don't survive."

"Sports Night" has more serious problems.

First, it's a sports show. `It's a concept that has been tried a few times before," recalled the noted TV viewer Arthur C. Kaminsky of Plandome. "Remember the Ryan O'Neil, Farrah Fawcett disaster?" That was "Good Sports" (1991). Not to mention the "Ball Four" debacle at CBS, which I seem to remember I had something to do with.

Even worse, it's hard to catagorize.

The network says it's a "comedy. But it's a comedy without comedy. Dan and Casey sometimes say amusing quirky things, like real people sometimes do. It's not funny like that other media show, "Lateline," sometimes was on good nights. There are no real jokes.

But there's nothing wrong with that. The majority of successful comedies on the air today aren't funny.

Well, if it's not a comedy than it must be a drama. But it can't be a drama: Where are the cops, doctors or lawyers - the only kind of professions we ever see on TV. And its only a half hour, a sure sign that it's not an hour - long drama.

In short, "Sports Night" is in a TV no man or woman's land; it doesn't fit existing catagories. Critics have tried to get around this shortcoming by calling it a "dramedy," an ugly word that killed "The Nights of Molly Dodd."

Calling the show something is important to the art of TV viewing. It establishes an attitude, an expectation that the show either meets or fails. But what if a show is neither comedy nor drama, neither vegetable or mineral?

What we need is a new category: "neither" or, better yet, "other." "Sports Night" is a significat Other.

Whatever you call it, "Sports Night" is a story about people, two friends who have an attitude, a wry way of looking at the world and life wwhich is reflected in the workplace and in their personal lives. Behind all the joshing and banter in the moments before they put on their "game face" going on camera, they are real people coping with real problems. Casey's coming to terms with his 10 yearold son about baseball tomorrow is very touching and real.

Aaron Sorkin, who created, co-produced, and wrote most of this first season's stories, is a too-good-for-prime-time writer. His stories are involving. You care about his people, the cumulative bottom line of all succesful weekly series. From Archie and Ethel Bunker to Andy Sipowicz and Bobby Simone , caring is what makes sitcons and dramas - and neithers - work.

I also like the way the show captures some of the real flavor of a cable news show,compared to what "Just Shoot Me" does about fashion magazines. It's in the fly-on-the-wall style of "Larry Sanders;" so far it doesn't have the cynicism of "Sanders" about the business.

On the other hand, "Sanders" was allowed to develop at HBO without nervous ABC VPs in charge of killing different shows sitting around with their fingers on the destruct button. If "Sanders" knew that any second the trap door would open, it wouldn't have developed the same wonderful way.

For these and many other reasons, I'm hailing ABC and hoping they will leave Sorkin alone next season. Without a Sword of Damocles over the show's head, by next year ABC will have a leader in the new category of Neither or Other.

In the meanwhile, what ABC should do is make "Sports Night" an hour-long program. "At a half hour the show is starting to get rolling just as it is ending," as Jim Maceiko of Dix Hills has suggested. "If it was an hour it would join `Ally McBeal' and `Cupid' in a new wave of comedy." Woops, Jim, don't mention "Cupid" around ABC.

I just hope that as ABC tinkers with the fall schedule over the next few weeks, the executives don't look at ratings and put "Sports Night" in the bullpen as a "second season" show, an ingenious ploy that NBC used to do away with "Lateline."

©1999, Newsday Inc.
The Fat Lady Hasn't Sung for 'Sports Night'.
05-03-1999, pp B23.