This week, ABC announced an overhaul of their streaming site and apps which not only introduced a new set of digital exclusive shows but also made some old favorites available for free streaming. Thankfully, one of these "throwback" shows just happens to be my all time favorite program: Sports Night. With that, now is the absolute perfect time to revisit this near flawless series.
Back in 1998, not many people knew what to make of Sports Night. Keep in mind, this was before TV was inundated with single camera comedies, before Aaron Sorkin made a name for himself with shows like The West Wing and films like The Social Network, and before the cast — which included Felicity Huffman (Transamerica, Desperate Housewives, American Crime), Peter Krause (Six Feet Under, The Catch), Josh Charles (The Good Wife, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), and Josh Malina (The West Wing, Scandal) — had reached the levels of television and cinema stardom they enjoy today. As a result, there is one distinct sign of ABC's lack of confidence with the program that sticks out like a sore thumb to both new and repeat viewers: the laugh track. Yes, while today's viewing audience is more accepting of so-called "dramedies," back in the day, ABC insisted that the half-hour program edit in canned laughter despite the fact that it's a "different kind" of funny (as Family Guy once joked, "it's a show that's too good to be funny" — although I think it's both great and hilarious). Eventually, this track was piped down before disappearing completely, but it's still jarring whenever I restart the series.
As I've said multiple times on this site as I review new shows, pilot episodes are extremely difficult to pull off. Yet, Sports Night's debut half hour is perfect. On top of introducing a dozen characters and showcasing the smart humor that would be its (and Sorkin's) signature, it also tells a complete story that carries emotional weight even though we're just meeting these broadcasters. While I often recommend shows to people with the disclaimer "just wait until episode X," no such warning is required with Sports Night — it's brilliant from the jump.
Perhaps the funniest thing about Sports Night being my favorite show is that I hold little to no affinity for sports. While I can't imagine that a sports fanatic would be any kind of hindrance to enjoying the show, it's certainly not a requirement. Some would argue that the series is more about a television show that talks about sports but I would say it's actually about the people who work at that television show that just happens to be about sports. Yes, sports events — both real and fictional — do play a role in some of the storylines, but it's how those events shape the characters that really matters.
Nearly 20 years after it first hit TV, some may view Sports Night through a different lens. For one, the hilarious if not altogether flattering "Sorkinism" compilation videos live in the minds of many and, yes, you may pick up on the use of some of his favorite phrases, metaphors, and other tropes throughout the series. Additionally, pop culture junkies like me will notice all kinds of connections, cameos (stay around long enough and Agent Coulson might even appear), and clever allusions. Despite these minor distractions, the show is one that — with an HD upgrade and that awful laugh track cut out — could likely live on ABC's current lineup.