The 15th Anniversary Of 'Sports Night'
15 years ago this month, we had a little TV show called Sports Night. And if you don't know why we're still talking about it 15 years later, you probably don't know Sports Night.
When the ABC half-hour hit the airwaves in September 1998, there was nothing else like it, and in truth, there's been nothing else like it since. Television audiences were introduced to the crew of a cable sports show - pitch-perfect co-anchors Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause), executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), associate producers Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) and Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina), and managing editor Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume) - who were as real, compelling and complex as any characters you could ask for. Writing their words was a guy we hadn't yet heard of Aaron Sorkin, because this was before The West Wing, The Social Network, and The Newsroom. And from the first minute of the first act of the pilot, it was rapidly apparent that this wasn't just a television show, or even a great television show; it was a program that was about to break every rule about television.
Sports Night dared to do things differently and not apologize for it. It was a show that loved sports, but you didn't have to know sports to love it; instead, it used sports to illustrate, inform and inspire, whether it was making us think about athletes as role models for children or educating us about what it takes to make television. Its characters didn't fill preconceived roles and its plots didn't have to neatly wrap up in 22 minutes. A laugh track was mercifully abolished by the second season. Here was a series that saw the model of a half-hour series, and instead of using it as a blueprint, questioned why the model existed in the first place.
Its fingerprints are still all over our small screens. There's Sorkin's emergence as a Hollywood powerhouse. Sports Night predated Charles playing Will Gardner on The Good Wife, Krause as Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under and Adam Braverman on Parenthood, Huffman in Desperate Housewives and Malina in Scandal. Other folks cut their teeth there, too; before she was cast as Donna Moss on The West Wing, Janel Moloney guested as a wardrobe assistant on Sports Night. White Collar star Tim DeKay had a minor role in the episode "Cliff Gardner." And well before The Avengers, Clark Gregg was a man that Dana met in a bar. Whether it's for the rules it broke or the talent it helped to bring to our attention, TV as we know it owes more than a little something to Sports Night.
Yet that's not even the best that the show had to offer. For those of us who are more than just TV fans, those who hold true to Edward R. Murrow's idea that the medium can be something bigger than itself, Sports Night was everything that the best of television can be. The fact that we still look back on it fondly a decade and a half after it began should say enough about its place in pop-culture history, but if you're still not convinced, let me tell you a story from my own long history with this beautiful little show.
There are no less than two dozen things I can thank Sports Night for, but for purposes of this column I want to talk about one in particular, and one person whom I've never publicly acknowledged yet. Sports Night got me through one of my most difficult periods, and for that I can thank Josh Charles.
Twelve years ago next month, I lost my childhood best friend when he was killed in a single-car accident. I was sixteen years old at the time, and no one close to me had ever passed away before. I was hurting, and I was scared, and I was confused. Moreso because I blamed myself for his death. Any other day, my best friend had always gotten a ride home with me, but that day I hadn't been there, and he ended up dead. I was consumed by the guilt of thinking that I could have saved his life. The day of his funeral, just minutes before I was due to go to the church, I finally broke down.
The second episode of Sports Night is called "The Apology." In it, Dan is told by the show's parent network to make an on-air apology for some comments he gave in a magazine interview. Instead, he apologizes to his younger brother, Sam, who died in a car accident, because Dan feels like Sam deserved a better role model. That happened to be the episode that was re-airing on Comedy Central at the exact time I was in tears on my couch. I came across it and sitting there, watching Josh Charles deliver that monologue, seeing in his eyes what was inside myself, I felt like I wasn't alone anymore. Someone else got it, even if that someone else was a fictional character. And then I remembered how Dan has always been my favorite character, and all the things I love about him, and that made me smile so that I could pull myself together and go to the funeral.
One of these days, the one thing left on my bucket list is to someday meet Josh Charles, so that I can shake his hand and thank him for being what I held onto when I needed it most. Here's a show that left an impact that I still appreciate today. And that's what really matters long after we've turned the TV off. If Sorkin's The West Wing is remembered for how it inspired us to hope for better politicians, Sports Night inspired us to be better people.
If you want to see the apology from "The Apology," here it is.
I still look back fondly on Sports Night. 15 years later, it still rings as true as it ever did. Sports Night was a special series, that changed TV and changed a lot of people who love TV, and for that, it's always worth remembering.
Sports Night is currently reairing on FXX; check your local listings for specific channel and airtimes. You can also pick up the entire series on DVD.
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