By Gail Pennington
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch


ABC's "Sports Night" is neither comedy nor drama. Instead, it's an opera without music, a ballet without tutus, a weekly poetry festival without pretensions - and the freshest, most exciting half-hour television series in ages.

I didn't always think so. Although I enjoyed "Sports Night" from the start, its unique rhythms took some getting used to. This show doesn't look or sound like any other, except possibly ESPN's "SportsCenter," which inspired it.

In long tracking shots, cameras follow the "Sports Night" characters as they dance around one another on the set and behind the scenes of a TV sports-news show that may be fictional but feels frantically real.

Dashing, darting or lighting somewhere for a moment, the inhabitants of this tight-knit little world never stop talking, talking, talking. Words bounce back and forth in a beat so infectious it's like a song you can't get out of your head.

Consider this exchange from tonight's season finale (8:30 p.m. on Channel 30). Anchor Casey (Peter Krause) is boasting to co-anchor Dan (Josh Charles) about his son's baseball skills. Dan is in the hair chair before the show; the camera circles them as they talk.
Casey: "You don't think that's impressive?"
Dan: "I think that's very impressive."
Casey: "You bet your butt it's impressive."
Dan: "It is."
Casey: "He started slow, but turns out he's got some game."
Dan: "He does."
Hairdresser: "You're done."
Ponder that bit of blank verse a second too long and you'll have missed not only an actual joke (at least, as close as "Sports Night" comes to one) but also a detour into the control room. There, statistics expert Jeremy (Joshua Malina) is wondering, "Whatever happened to the ninth-inning rally?" and executive producer Dana (the fabulous Felicity Huffman) is agreeing, in her own way. "Yeah, and why don't we use semicolons anymore?"

Creator Aaron Sorkin was a playwright ("A Few Good Men") and screenwriter ("The American President') who didn't know the "rules" for writing a TV comedy - set-up, punch line, roar from laugh track - and didn't want to learn them. So he stuck with what he did know, creating a little play every week. ("The writing I'm doing pays very little attention to the fact that this is a television show," Sorkin, who writes almost every word of the show, told TV Guide.)

A passionate core group of fans discovered "Sports Night" right away, e-mailing their favorite quotes to one another. Now, a Web site ( [Note from TK: the writer got the URL wrong, but I made the link work correctly] preserves the show's best lines for posterity.

But obviously, "Sports Night" will never be everyone's cup of TV tea. Like "ER" or, before it, "Hill Street Blues," this is a show that makes demands on viewers. Attention is crucial, and the background chatter and constant motion can be distracting or even disorienting. It's almost as easy to be annoyed by the singsong dialogue as entranced by it.

All season, ratings hovered in the middle range, hampered not just by the show's own quirks but by competition from the season's other hot new sitcom, NBC's "Will & Grace." Incredibly, however, ABC believed in "Sports Night," even respected it, and threw a party in March to announce early renewal for next season. Tonight's season finale, then, is just that - only a temporary goodbye.

The episode itself arrived for preview in very rough form, but still sparkled, not just the best "Sports Night" of the year but possibly the best episode of any half-hour show this year. The finale, called "What Kind of Day It Has Been," wraps up a major continuing story, with an Emmy-caliber performance from Huffman and an extremely moving (yet never sappy) final scene featuring the return of Robert Guillaume, who suffered a stroke in January.

The finale also reveals one of the great truths about "Sports Night" - its very good heart. In this workplace family, there's genuine love, even if the siblings can't resist uncovering one another's every weakness.

If you're already a "Sports Night" convert, tape this episode; you'll want to see it twice. If you haven't discovered the show, give it a chance. You could be converted, too.

Thanks to Marnee Evans for this transcription.