(Show review originally written in 2002)
A couple of nights ago, I made a statement that I'd never thought I'd make in my many years of sitting in front of the television: "T.V. is terrible." While network and cable television continue to have their own bright spots ("Scrubs", "Sopranos"), there are now nights of television that seem completely barren of anything remotely interesting. For every show that's mildly successful, we get a carbon copy on another network: ABC succeeds with "The Bachelor", so Fox quickly readies "Joe Millionare", a show where a group of women are told the guy in question just inherited $50 million dollars when, in fact, that couldn't be farther from the truth.
ABC is a particularly interesting situation and, quite honestly, the network most in need of fresh programming. "The Drew Carey Show" and "Whose Line is it Anyway?" are still funny (although "Drew Carey" hasn't come up with anything quite as inspired as when Mimi sent Drew to China), but facing diminishing ratings on Friday night. The show's Wednesday night comedies are not particularly well-reviewed, but bringing in respectable numbers. Monday Night Football probably continues to be the network's biggest hit.
Some of the network's finer shows in recent years have seemingly slipped under the radar. "It's Like...You Know" was a 1999 comedy from "Seinfeld" director/producer Andy Ackerman. The show's "Seinfeld"-ish humor was mixed with some inspired situations and witty dialogue. The show's terrific cast carried the material with ease, too. The show was cancelled. There was also the amusing "Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)"; while oddly titled, the Hollywood spoof from Peter Tolan ("Analyze This", "The Larry Sanders Show") had potential - its debut numbers were not enough to extend its lifespan beyond a few episodes.
Which brings me (finally, I know) to "Sports Night", Aaron Sorkin's creation that dropped viewers into the middle of a fast-talking sports news show. The show's ratings never caught on and eventually, Sorkin apparently focused all of his energy on "The West Wing", instead. Of the ABC shows that I've mentioned above, "Sports Night" is the one of the three "lost" shows that offered the most potential. Sorkin's writing here is certainly more impressive than most of the dialogue he's provided for theatrical fare and the setting certainly assists the words: the compact office space of the program allows the characters to bounce dialogue off one another in a rapid-fare pace that reminds me somewhat of David Mamet.
The show stars Peter Krause and Josh Charles as the two anchors of a news show on cable network that seems like a second-rate ESPN. Felicity Huffman, Sabrina Lloyd, and Joshua Malina play the producers on the show, while Robert Guillaume is the head producer, often finding himself dealing with the network's "notes" on how to "better" the program. There are constantly conflicts and situations between characters that are fresh and interesting, not to mention well-played by the superb cast. Similar in ways to "Scrubs", the show isn't just the average sitcom - it mixes in serious issues, smart humor and interesting issues, often all packed in one 22-minute program.
Networks are constantly having to battle against cable shows that can afford to be edgier and who've also walked away with most of the awards over the past few years. As a result, they have gone with what works (I like "Friends", too, ubt another season is starting to take a good thing too far), rather than doing what the cable networks have - getting together strong, smart talent that can put together shows like we haven't seen before.
"Sports Night", whose two seasons are included in this 8-DVD box set, maybe just wasn't something that ABC knew how to handle. Maybe, with its schedule changes, audiences weren't able to follow it around or it was up against too much competition, but it's really too bad that it never found its audience. This is one of the quickest, sharpest shows I've seen and it's not even a matter of a slow start - the first few episodes are good stuff and show an instant chemistry between the actors. It's great to see that audiences can finally catch up with this show on DVD, because its certainly deserving of finally finding the audience it didn't during its two seasons on the air.
This set includes all episodes from both seasons of the show.
VIDEO: "Sports Night" is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio throughout this 8-DVD set. The picture quality is better than most of the TV-to-DVD fare that I've reviewed lately, with very nice sharpness and detail. Only a few minor instances of pixelation and shimmer showed up throughout, while colors looked bright and well-saturated, with no smearing.
SOUND: "Sports Night" is presented with a fine 2.0 soundtrack that is completely dialogue-driven.
EXTRAS: Shout Factory has gathered the original cast and crew together to produce quite a few supplemental features for the series. First up, we get a series of commentaries for 8 episodes: Commentaries:
1. Pilot (Aaron Sorkin & Thomas Schlamme)
2. The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee (Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Sabrina Lloyd and Robert Berlinger)
3. Small Town (Janet Ashikaga)
4. Sally (Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Timothy Davis-Reed & Ron Ostrow)
5. The Local Weather (Josh Charles, Joshua Malina)
6. Quo Vadimus (Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme)
7. Eli's Coming (Peter Krause, Robert Berlinger)
8. Kafelnikov (Greg Baker, Kayla Blake, Josh Charles, Timothy Davis-Reed, Joshua Malina and Ron Ostrow)
Each season of the show has its own bonus disc in the set, which offers in-depth featurettes and a gag reel. The bonus disc for the first season offers "The Show" (interviews with Sorkin, Schlamme and other members of the cast and crew, who discuss the initial development of the series, the show's production and the reaction to the show's cancellation), "Face-Off" (members of EPSN's "SportsCenter" discuss what the sports network portrayed in the show got right/accurate) and a gag reel for the first season. The second season bonus disc offers "Looking Back" (an interview between Schlamme and Sorkin) and "Inside the Locker Room" (a behind-the-scenes look at the creative and technical innovations in "Sports Night") and a gag reel for the second season. Finally, we also get original promos.
The commentaries are excellent, although Schlamme and Sorkin offer the best discussions, offering up funny and informative discussions on the inner workings of the series. We hear a great deal about the development of the show (including casting) and various concerns and obstacles during the show's run. The cast commentaries are also terrific, as the various participants offer some enjoyable stories and recall some of their favorite moments working on the series.
Final Thoughts: "Sports Night" was a terrific, well-acted and superbly written series that simply never caught on. While the series may have begun to fade from memory ten years after it first aired, the show does deserve to be revisited, and this excellent box set - which offers some excellent bonus features - from Shout Factory is the kind of presentation that it deserves. Recommended.