Sports Night And The Reality of Television


Sports Night was a critically-acclaimed, but poorly viewed dramedy that ran on ABC in the late 90s. On the surface, it’s a fictional behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce a live television sports show; look closer and you see that the show has very little to do with sports and instead is an unparalleled depiction of reality on television.

It’s the best approximation of the real world that I have seen: people are thrown into caustic interpersonal situations—the fallout of inter-office dating, lying to yourself about loving someone—then deal with them in ways we expect, face a multitude of ethical and moral dilemmas—drug use, animal rights, private and public abuse—that we all have opinions on and work hard to put out a product that few people appreciate. (Regarding this last point, the fictional Sports Night on CSC becomes a meta-representation of the real Sports Night on ABC).

They do all of this while speaking and interacting in ways that sound and look realistic, not staged. They joke, make sarcastic remarks, discuss, vilify, love, but overall, they care about each other in a way that can only be formed from spending an inordinate amount of time together. The credit goes to Aaron Sorkin, in his first TV outing, and his cast. The circumstances he scripted and the cast acted out mirror modern experiences and concerns. In some ways, this show feels real enough that it could be a guide for your 30-something life; you could think to yourself, “didn’t this happen on Sports Night? I should re-watch that episode.”

Usually, sitcoms aim for a reality that looks like our own, but one that is instead safe, finely designed and slapstick. It’s a reality that producers think we want, a reality without major hardship. They think that we want friends like Chandler and Joey (and maybe Phoebe), that we want romance like Pam and Jim, that we want a special “out of town” episode in a European city where someones kid/ dog gets lost. It’s easy to see through that type of writing and come to the conclusion that it feels phony. These people, while they may exist, cannot exist so happily anywhere but in our TV screens.

On the other hand, dramedies exist mainly to show us situations and characters we would never otherwise see. Denis Leary as a raging alcoholic fireman, Hugh Laurie as a snobby, know-it-all asshole doctor, Mary-Louise Parker as a MILF who sells weed. These creations, while entertaining, hardly mimic the things we see and feel. They can in abstract ways—once you remove yourself so far from the plot that you can sort of see yourself in the characters—but it’s rare for these shows to be overt about appealing directly to the audience.

(Also, to state the obvious, reality television is probably more staged than anything mentioned thus far.)

Television is an escape from reality, but it can also be an escape to reality. This is why Sports Night is important: it’s an escape to reality. It lets us see our lives, past, present and future, from a different perspective; there are considerations that can be gleaned from it that go beyond simple entertainment. While the people on the show are primarily concerned about sports news, we see very little of that world. Instead we see their interactions and how they subtly change and affect one another.

We see Casey, newly divorced, and Dana continually fail to become romantically involved because romance can’t happen if both people don’t want it enough. We see Dan’s identity crisis in season two, something that forces him to see a psychologist and almost causes him to lose faith in his work. We see Isaac’s recovery from his stroke and how this affects every aspect of his life. We see Jeremy and Natalie’s workplace romance flourish and then drag. We see these things through a camera lens that doesn’t tint the scenario purely for entertainment.

Sorkin wrote these characters so that we could see our own failings and triumphs (and how these two things do not always balance out) told in a familiar way. The interesting thing about this is that it still proves to be highly entertaining; it turns out that true reality can be just as entertaining as false reality. Once again, credit goes to Sorkin and the writers for creating people who are passionate, witty and funny, but in a way that makes me think “uh, this is my life” instead of “where do these people exist?”

The show is insightful. There are moments where the characters openly consider and discuss things we all have opinions on, like racism, why we should act good if there is no punishment for sin and “slinking” out of someones apartment after spending the night. (“So you made her breakfast?” “No, I just left.” “You could’ve fried her an egg.”) These conversations could easily be interpreted through something that I call the Seinfeld filter—when your internal voice inexplicably begins to sound like characters from Seinfeld and suddenly any thought or internal dialogue has an accompanying laugh track—but coming from the actors on Sports Night, it’s endearingly candid, funny and relatable.

Over and over, they prove to be just like us (except with more opportunities for monologues). They sleep with people they shouldn’t sleep with and then reflect on it. They say things that they know they shouldn’t say, then try to quickly recover. They don’t always understand their own motivations. They have long conversations about topics that are important to them. They second guess themselves. They take risks and lose. They’re as real as it gets.

Like other dramedies, the show also lets us see and experience things we probably never will. Obviously, there’s the hustle that comes from working on a deadline (after all, they are producing a nightly show), but situations come up that many other shows would not be able to appropriately handle. Late in season two, Jeremy briefly dates a pornstar. In most shows, he would turn into a caricature of himself and the encounter would be a self-serving joke. Instead, he reacts like most slightly nerdy but eloquent people would: even though he really likes this girl, he has a difficult time coming to terms with dating someone who works in porn. As a result, he lies to his friends, ex-girlfriend and co-workers out of embarrassment, a lie that proves he can’t handle such a relationship. They breakup before he has the chance to sleep with her.

Sports Night does fall victim to a classic television stereotype at the end of the series. When everything is at it’s worst and it doesn’t appear that the cast will be saved, they miraculously are. This is the most disappointing point in the show, but it’s easy to understand why Sorkin and the producers might have finished it this way. Ratings were poor and ABC wasn’t going to renew them for a third season, so why leave the audience with a downer? There’s also the possibility that Sorkin wanted these characters to end on a high note because, after everything they had experienced, they sort of deserved it. They deserved it because they were written to be extensions of ourselves and, if at all possible, we all deserve to end on a high note.

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image – Sports Night