Goodness, that’s an amazingly thorough synopsis. It really puts the little Netflix synopses to shame.
I’m going to do this a little differently than the Lois & Clark recaps. Since the episodes are so much shorter at only 22 minutes, the recaps themselves will be much shorter, so I’ll have some analysis and commentary sprinkled in, as well as just general thoughts and musings about the show.
So here we have the pilot. The show opens with the Sports Night crew, under the direction of producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame), preparing to start an evening’s live 11 PM broadcast. On set, Dan Rydell (Josh Charles, of The Good Wife fame) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause, of Six Feet Under fame) are discussing Casey’s social life and Dan’s ongoing New York renaissance. There is some commotion in the control room when it is called into question whether Helsinki is in Sweden, Switzerland, or Finland. There’s lots of running around and shouting before they finally figure out that it’s in Finland. Overall the impression is that this show is maybe not the most well-oiled machine.
The next day, Dana and Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume, of Benson fame), Sports Night’s managing editor, discuss Casey’s increasingly foul mood, and Dana does her best to defend his behavior, citing Casey’s divorce as a reason. From there they go into a rundown meeting that includes Dan, Casey, associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd, of Sliders fame), and the rest of the crew behind the show. Also sitting in is JJ (Hey It’s That Guy, of Oh, That One Thing I Can’t Think Of The Name Of But You Know What I’m Talking About, Right? fame), a network executive who is there to give notes on the show and generally muck things up. He interjects at one point about a piece they are planning on doing about a 41-year-old distance runner from a third world country who had had his legs broken by police in his country and who was now running in a big race that CSC (the network that airs Sports Night) would be showing later that night. He doesn't think they should run the piece, and Casey doesn’t take kindly to bein’ interjected at, so he generally acts like an ass to JJ, including threatening him with physical violence, before storming out of the room. Dan, Dana, and Isaac defend Casey’s actions, but JJ leaves, warning that the network brass won’t tolerate Casey’s guff for much longer. He doesn’t say guff, I just thought I’d put that in there to give the story some flavor.
Casey is shocked to learn that he's an ass.
Later on, Dana meets with Casey to yell at him for screwing up her show, and their meeting doesn’t go well. Casey’s a dick some more and Dana tries to be understanding and eventually she gets him to shut up, but it still really doesn’t seem like he’s learning anything. After this conversation, Dana and Natalie meet with Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina, of The West Wing fame) about filling an open associate producer position and, hopefully, avoiding any further Helsinki mishaps. The interview goes awfully as Dana grills Jeremy about basketball, a sport he has very little knowledge of. Natalie tries to be supportive, mostly because she’s totally crushing on Jeremy for some reason, but Jeremy totally loses it. He gives a spectacularly unprofessional rant/monologue about the Knicks and how he can’t properly answer a question without a few minutes to do some research, and it occurs to me that he could have used this energy to maybe come up with an actual answer instead of indulging his wiggins. Dana must agree because she zones out while he’s ranting, and eventually she’s able to get a straight answer out of him and he is hired immediately. After that poor showing, I almost think she hired him just because Natalie thinks he’s cute and she feels sorry for the girl.
Later that evening, Dan and Casey have a showdown/throwdown on the set of the show (thankfully, they are not on the air at the time). Casey tells Dan that he’s thinking about leaving Sports Night because he’s become disillusioned with sports and with athletes. He cites a story about a basketball player who got into a drunken brawl the night before and was arrested, as well as references to Nancy Kerrigan getting hit with a pipe (Why, God, why?!) and what he calls “the mother of all sports stories,” the OJ Simpson murder trial. He worries that his seven-year-old son will look up to athletes now that he doesn’t have a male role model around all of the time. Dan proceeds to get pissed off and tells Casey that his ex-wife, Lisa, never loved him, and that he should really get his head out of his ass because everyone has been defending him and now he’s planning to leave. As they argue, one of the Sports Night staff, Kim, comes to get Dan and Casey. They head out into the main office, where everyone is gathered around a TV watching Entizaki Nelson, the 41-year-old distance runner from the story earlier, as he looks to be about to break a world record. As they cheer, Casey rushes off and calls his ex-wife. He urges her to wake Charlie (his son) up so that he can talk to him. Once Charlie is awake, Casey tells him to turn on the TV so that he can watch someone run really fast. He tells Charlie he loves him, and hangs up the phone. Moments later, the group is rushing to put together a live promo for their upcoming show. Casey takes the lead on the promo, his enthusiasm for sports having been renewed by Nelson’s running ability.
Review: I have one main problem with the pilot to this show, and that problem is this: Casey’s a dick. I think this pilot does an excellent job of establishing the personalities for the show’s lead characters and the relationships between those characters…except for Casey. Dana is the leader of this bunch, and Natalie is her second-in-command. They all answer to Isaac, who Dana even says is like a surrogate father to the lot of them. Dan is easily the heart of the team, with his exuberance over his New York renaissance (“You ever ride the subway all day, you know, just for fun?”), and Jeremy is shown to be very intelligent but also somewhat neurotic – I almost wonder if they weren’t looking for a Woody Allen-type when they cast the role. Even JJ is pretty clearly defined as being sort of a prick and the face of the network.
Look! It's all the nice characters that you like!
Oh, and Casey's there, too.
And then there’s Casey, who’s a dick. Am I supposed to like this guy? Even from the first time that I saw this pilot oh so many years ago, I always thought that Casey was the most unlikable character and why should I ever care about him? I know he’s one of the leads of the show, but seriously, the stick that is up this guy’s ass is at least six feet long, and that’s not even humanly possible but he makes it work. We are told throughout the episode that Casey’s just going through a rough patch and he’s actually a really great guy, but we don’t see even a little bit of that until the very end of the episode. It’s okay for JJ to be a dick because, essentially, he’s the villain of the piece and it’s okay to not care what happens to him, unless that something that happens is particularly cruel, in which case that’s awesome. But to start off the show with one of your protagonists being a complete ass to everyone for almost a full episode does not seem to be the way one would go about getting an audience to give a damn about said character. If nothing else, it’ll just make it that much harder for me to enjoy watching that character throughout the rest of the show. That’s probably why I never really cared for Casey, at least on my first go-around with the show. He grew on me, but it took time.
That’s my main concern with the episode. Another concern might be the lax hiring standards that Sports Night seems to have in place. If they’ll hire a total spaz like Jeremy, they’ll hire just about anyone. I still really enjoy the pilot to this show. The writing is tight, there were several points where I did laugh out loud (and I’ve seen this episode dozens of times over the years), and while I question the legitimacy of Casey’s epiphany as a result of one inspiring story amid the countless others that he could have cited during his confrontation with Dan, I choose to accept it because it is an inspiring story, and because I feel like, ultimately, this show isn’t about the seedy underbelly of the sports world. It’s about smart, good people doing something they love. And that inspires me.
I’m really excited to experience it all again.