The single camera dramedy about an ESPN-style sportscast (see SportsCenter) created and (mostly) written by Aaron Sorkin went off the air after just two seasons on ABC from 1998 to 2000, but it remains a cult favorite and an influential example of the form.
The show's core cast consisted of Peter Krause (Six Feet Under, Parenthood) as Casey McCall, Josh Charles (Dead Poets Society and The Good Wife) as Dan Rydell, Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) as Dana Whittaker, Sabrina Lloyd (Sliders) as Natalie Hurley, Joshua Malina (The West Wing) as Jeremy Goodwin and Robert Guillaume (Benson, Soap) as Isaac Jaffee, all of whom worked at a fictitious cable sports channel patterned after ESPN. (Characters on the show often referred to real-life athletes, teams, other television channels, Broadway musicals and various pop culture references in an attempt at verisimilitude.)
Most of the 22-minute episodes featured a similar pattern:
- Workplace banter that introduces the week's major problem or theme
- Slapstick gags or more banter that fulfilled the show's half-comedy billing
- A sudden twist into the serious realm at about the halfway mark
- One of the characters (usually Dana) flying off the handle for no good reason
- Primary plot problem resolution
- If subplot is present, a comedic or sentimental subplot resolution that points up a Double Aesop
During the first season, Sports Night employed a Laugh Track, with mixed results. Because Sorkin disliked the Laugh Track, it was gradually dialed down during the season, and disappears entirely for the second. At the beginning of season one, the Laugh Track points up the structure by cackling riotously for the first 12 minutes and then staying oddly silent throughout the latter acts.
While the structure of the episodes were similar, Sports Night was written with wit and intelligence, and presented a number of non-cliché plot problems for the audience to think about. Even cliché plot problems — as when Jeremy dates a porn star in a Hooker with a Heart of Gold plot — were presented with true feeling for the characters and a deft touch that never felt cloying or aged.
This show provided examples of:
- Adorkable: Dana, especially when trying to tell a joke or dancing a dance of joy.
- Arc Words: Only for two or three episodes at the end of the run, but "Where are we going?" probably qualifies.
- Armor-Piercing Question: A relatively trivial example. The coach at Casey's alma mater calls a disastrous play, and Casey spends the next week making fun of him on air for it … until Gordon asks him "What play would you have called?" and he realizes he has no idea.
- Artistic License – Sports: Cricket enthusiast Aaron Sorkin included a line that in a Test (International) match, one of the bowlers had achieved the remarkable feat of taking all 10 wickets in a single innings (a feat only achieved twice in history — Jim Laker in 1956 and Anil Kumble in 1999), and compared it to a baseball pitcher throwing "three straight perfect games." Whether that comparison is valid, the professional sports commentators can't understand how the bowler could have conceded any runs while doing this (which would be, in cricketing terms, a virtually miraculous occurrence). Even with absolutely no knowledge of the rules of cricket, you'd presume they'd realise that the standards of scoring in the two games were rather different.
- Author Catchphrase: Titling the last episode of Season 1 "What Kind of Day Has It Been" — among others.note
- Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Sam Donovan.
- Brick Joke: Dana's frozen turkey in "Thespis", which she's thawing out in the lighting grid. It crashes onto the news desk halfway through the episode.
- Buffy Speak:Dan: "What are you, some nutty nut-girl who's nuts?"
- Bromance: In the commentary for the series finale, Aaron Sorkin says, after a particularly emotional moment between Casey and Dan: "There's a lot of love affairs on this show, not just Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause, but these two."
- Cannot Tell a Joke: Dana.
- Deadpan Snarker: It's Sorkin, so everyone. But especially Dan.
- Doesn't Like Guns: In "Dana Get Your Gun", we learn that Dana fervently hates guns; in fact she's a member of the Anti-Handgun Coalition. So her opinion of Sam drops a couple of pegs when he admires the musket she's inherited. Turns out he's a member of the same coalition, and there's a big difference in his mind between someone in the 20th century who buys a handgun just to be macho and redneck, and someone who made a musket in The Amerian Revolution to fight off the British.
- Double Standard: Dana and Casey really like each other in the first season, but neither is ready to try and make it work. So Dana starts dating Gordon, which drives Casey crazy but everyone tells him to suck it up and deal and let her be happy. Later, Casey has a casual relationship (i.e. just sex) with Sally and most of the characters treat it as a massive betrayal of the now engaged-to-Gordon Dana (who doesn't like this woman, mainly because she always flirts with Casey).
- There's a bit more to it than this. Sally is constantly undermining Dana and her show and is actively after her job.
- Everybody Is Single:
- Executive Meddling: Portrayed at several points (often as Reality Subtext).
- Forgotten Anniversary: In "Thespis", Casey forgets his and Dan's first broadcast.
- Framing Device: Of a letter home (Day in the Life) ("Dear Louise…").
- Geeky Turn-On: Natalie tells Jeremy that when he talks "computer talk," they're having phone sex.
- The Ghost: Jeremy's sister, Louise; Casey's ex-wife; Isaac's wife; Dan's love interest's ex-husband, Steve Sisco
- Happy Birthday to You!: One episode includes a subplot where Dan has to pay the fine for singing the song to Casey without securing the rights. In response, he asks everybody in the station what public domain song they would like for their birthday.
- He Who Must Not Be Seen: Luther Sachs, owner of Continental Corp and, by extension, Continental Sports Channel (CSC)
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: "Celebrities" and "The Local Weather"
- Indy Ploy: "Napoleon's Battle Plan".Casey: First we show up, then we see what happens.
- Ironic Echo: In the episode "Mary Pat Shelby", Casey criticizes Dana's handling of the interview with Christian Patrick by saying, "You handled a big thing badly." Near the end of the episode, when Dana realizes in trying to help Natalie, she screwed things up even more, so she goes to Isaac and tells him, "I did a big thing badly." Also in that episode, Dana asks Natalie if getting an interview with Christian Patrick is something she's inclined to joke about, and Natalie responds she doesn't think Dana is inclined to joke much about anything. At the very end of the episode, Dana apologizes to Natalie for everything that's happened, and if there's anything she can do. Natalie's response: "Tell me a joke."
- From the same episode, "how much do you love me right now?". First used by Isaac then Dana about getting the interview, later Natalie says it after telling the guy who sexually assaulted her what an asshole he is and that she's going to have him arrested.
- Dana actually does these a lot (plus or minus the irony), often picking up a phrase early in the episode from one character and repeating it to several others.
- I Take Offense to That Last One!:Dana: I don't think you're cute, I don't think you're funny, I don't think you're smart, and sometimes I don't think you're very nice.
Casey: You don't think I'm funny?
- Ivy League for Everyone
- Well, only Dan (Dartmouth) and Rebecca (UPenn Wharton) actually attended a school in the Ivy League as far as we know. But they're all highly educated. Casey graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Natalie attended Northwestern and Jeremy attended Amherst.
- Jerkass with a Heart of Gold: Sam Donovan turns out to be one.
- Let's Get Dangerous!: Natalie, in "Small Town". She spends a night filling in for Dana as the show's main producer and its a hell of a CMOA.
- Millennium Bug: "Kafelnikov" revolves around Jeremy believing that he has triggered this and shut off power to the whole floor. It turns out he incorrectly hit the "Panic" button.)
- Premature Encapsulation: The episode entitled "Kafelnikov" is the episode before the one where Dan can't pronounce Yevgeny Kafelnikov's name.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Robert Guillaume suffered a stroke in Real Life, making acting difficult. Subsequently, an entire story arc was written involving Isaac Jaffee suffering a stroke, allowing Guillaume to stay off-camera for a while. Subsequent episodes upon Guillaume's return dealt with Jaffee's struggles to keep doing his job.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Isaac has got his employees' back.
- Revenge of the Nerd: Bobbi Bernstein
- Right Behind Me: In "The Apology", Dan is supposed to be meeting with the CSC executives, but he's decided to make them wait.Casey: Go to your meeting.
Dan: I told you, I'm making them wait.
Casey: No, you're making them mad.
Dan: No, I am making them anxious.
Casey: [Sees Isaac come into the room behind Dan] I think you're just making them mad. I think Isaac specifically is mad.
Dan: No, Isaac's on my team. Isaac understands me. Isaac has a highly developed sense of right and wrong and he is hip to my battle plan.
Casey: Dan, he's standing right behind you.
Dan: [Turns around] How you doing? Casey and I were just talking about your highly developed sense of right and wrong and I was just saying …
Isaac: Go sit your sorry ass down in that meeting.
Dan: On my way, sir.
- Romantic False Lead: Jenny and Pixley. Gordon, as well.
- Running Gag: Danny saying that some sport or another is "The Sport of Kings", only to be reminded that the sport of kings is really horse racing.
- Jeremy also has a running gag of commenting on the fact that he is, at this moment, talking to himself in an empty room.
- Second Place Is for Losers: Sports Night is always concerned about being the third-place show.
- "It's not like we're those chumps in fourth place. Bunch of losers!"
- Set Behind the Scenes of Sports Night.
- Shipper on Deck: Natalie spends a lot of time cheerleading Dana and Casey's potential romance.
- Smug Snake: J.J. the corporate executive comes off this way.
- Soccer-Hating Americans: Subverted: Dan has to talk about association football, but has absolutely no knowledge of the sport. When he challenges Natalie to name one team, Natalie and some extras list half a dozen on the Eastern Coast alone, revealing Dan as the only one in the office who doesn't follow the sport.
- Sorkin Relationship Moment
- Spit Take: Happens quite spectacularly when Dan gets writer's block and Natalie decides to cure it with shock therapy.
- Stock Footage: Used as the promos for the programs that are on after Sports Night.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: When Jeremy expresses concern for Casey (because of Casey's bizarre insistence that there is a fly in the studio that nobody else can see, among other things), Casey assures him that everything is fine. Casey then says, "I'm not obsessed with Dana," when Jeremy never even mentioned Dana.
- Take That!: In the series finale, the new owner of CSC says "Anybody who can't make money off of Sports Night should get out of the money-making business." Take that, ABC!
- Talk About That Thing
- Techno Babble: Jeremy, trying to come up with an explanation for why his Y2K fix caused the entire floor to lose power:Jeremy: I think it's possible that a spike in the slave-sync signal shorted the PCI bus so the DMA controller had an IRQ conflict!
- Crossing into bad research territory, in the days before widespread internet access would make a gaffe like this noticeable (and possibly to get around actually having to deal with a real address), Dan ends a broadcast by saying:Dan: So, if you've got a Play of the Year, you can contact us at CSC slash sports night dot com.
- Which is easily an in-character goof (although you'd think someone would have ribbed him about it): Danny clearly means "CSC at sports night dot com", and just got "slash" and "at" mixed up. Or more likely firstname.lastname@example.org, since CSC is the network and Sports Night is a show.
- It's also possibly not an email address; Dan could easily have meant csc.com/sportsnight (which would then have a contact page) and just gotten the order tangled up.
- Or it was the Internet equivalent of a 555 phone number: something that sounded vaguely like an email address, but wouldn't cause some innocent third party to be bombarded with fan mail.
- Crossing into bad research territory, in the days before widespread internet access would make a gaffe like this noticeable (and possibly to get around actually having to deal with a real address), Dan ends a broadcast by saying:
- Those Three Guys: Chris, Will, and Dave.
- Visit by Divorced Dad: "What Kind of Day Has It Been"
- Walk and Talk: Seeing as this is an Aaron Sorkin work this occurs at least Once per Episode.
- Will They or Won't They?: Dana and Casey.
- Resolved in the second season when they have a great kiss and almost start dating in the first few episodes, but don't because Dana has a "plan" and Casey actually moves on by mid-season.
- Welcome Episode: "Pilot", with Jeremy as the new guy.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: Jeremy guesses Natalie's six-character email password, and Dana, shocked, remarks that there are five thousand possible passwords of that length; Jeremy corrects her and says that there are "fourteen thousand, two hundred and some change." While we don't know what characters are valid for passwords in their email system, even a case insensitive password of just letters and numbers would have 366, or almost 2.2 million possibilities.