Why is the world of live television so compelling to Aaron Sorkin? He’s about to debut TheNewsroom, his third series (out of only four) based backstage at a live television show. If we cast our net a bit wider, to encompass The West Wing and even his movies A Few Good Men and Moneyball, we may find the secret to this obsession. The television studio, press briefing room, courtroom, and baseball stadium have this in common: They are sites where people perform for audiences under enormous pressure. Everything that happens to set up those performances involves high-stakes decision-making and lightning-fast calculations, moral and economic. Those moves behind the scenes, made with not enough time to reflect and based on premises that can always be questioned, result in the play (within the show) that gets presented to an audience equally ready to criticize and to be moved.
Sorkin is willing to exploit the conventional tensions of live performance—the unpredictable moment, the scrambling to recover from error, the cracks in the facade of perfection, the serendipitous grace of rising to the occasion. That’s the subject of the best moment in Sports Night so far: Dan’s apology. But he’s more interested in watching people prepare for performance. They make editorial decisions; they execute a thousand tiny tasks; they follow through on trajectories they set long ago, or they wrench themselves into new arcs with great difficulty. And most fascinating of all, they vacillate between incommensurate frames of reference. Morality and politics. Friends and colleagues. Business and personal life. Public and private. Responsibility and opportunity.
“Mary Pat Shelby”/“The Head Coach, Dinner And The Morning Mail” (season 1, episodes 5 and 6; originally aired 10/20/98 and 10/27/98)
The drama of Natalie’s encounter with professional football jerk Christian Patrick is an excellent example of Sorkin’s obsession with the effects of the performance-centered environment on how those frames get navigated and what decisions ultimately come out of them. It begins as a ripped-from-the-headlines plot based on the problems females face in the testosterone-choked environment of male athletics. Two incidents in particular inspire the script. Christian Patrick is probably meant to recall Christian Peter, a 1996 Patriots draftee who was cut from the team before even coming to camp after an assault on a woman at a bar led to media coverage of Peter’s eight arrests and four convictions (including one for rape) while he was at the University of Nebraska. And Lisa Olson, a Boston Herald reporter covering the Patriots in 1990, is referenced directly in the episode’s dialogue. Players complained that she let her eyes wander too much in the locker room, but the general manager refused to deny her access. So Patriot players made a point of walking around her naked, rubbing their genitals both in front of and behind her, making vulgar comments and gestures, and taunting each other to greater levels of disrespect.
As “Mary Pat Shelby” begins, Dana and Isaac are thrilled to hear that the infamous Christian Patrick will do a five-minute interview on Sports Night, creating a buzz that will propel their ratings above ESPN and Fox Sports for the first time. On show day, however, Patrick’s handlers inform Dana that Mary Pat Shelby, the girlfriend whom Patrick put in the hospital, is off limits. Casey is outraged (“Unless she can catch 80 passes a season, America could care less about her concussion and broken jaw”), but Dan, busy thinking about growing a goatee, remains calm because he’s on his values day off. “When I consider the effort it takes to diligently maintain a moral compass, I take myself out of the lineup and rest for the next game,” he explains.
Everything changes, though, when Natalie returns from pre-interviewing Patrick at the Meadowlands, having had a janitor witness an incident where Patrick exposed himself to her and grabbed her wrist. Now the question is how Sports Night will treat that story, and how her co-workers will treat Natalie. Here’s where this episode takes a surprising, understated, and moving turn for me. Natalie is more upset by everyone treating her as a victim than by what happened, it seems. “I’d like to be allowed to do my job,” she requests when Isaac tells her, kindly but rather paternalistically, that he’s arranged for a car to take her home. At the same time, her co-workers would like to be allowed to care for her as a friend, person, and yes, a woman; Jeremy especially struggles with how to respect her wishes and express his feelings at the same time. When Patrick shows up for his interview and introduces himself, Jeremy hisses, “I’m gonna pay someone $50 to have you killed!,” the paltry sum communicating equal parts utter disdain and charming ignorance of how the world might work. And in Dana’s confession that she sent Natalie (instead of Jeremy) to the Meadowlands on purpose, because “I thought she could—provoke a better response to the questions,” we feel the isolation of the person caught between those shifting, tricky frames. Should she redeem herself by making the best of it for the show (by brokering a deal to allow Mary Pat Shelby questions in exchange for avoiding Natalie Hurley ones), or should she redeem herself by standing up for Natalie and refusing to deal with Jerkpatrick at all? Everybody knows it’s the latter, but nobody is willing to blame her for doing the former.
In “The Head Coach, Dinner And The Morning Mail” (featuring our first “Previously on Sports Night”—we’re serialized, people!), the aftermath of the story CSC refused to tell plays out as one among many plots, unlike “Mary Pat Shelby,” which only had Dan’s goatee for a palate cleanser (“King Tut, Sigmund Freud… Galileo was another,” Dan free-associates as he ruminates on goatee precedent). While Natalie frets that her colleagues are treating her with kid gloves and not calling her on boneheaded mistakes because of the stress she’s under, Casey is both conducting a televised vendetta against the football coach from his alma mater because of a blown fourth down call and obsessing over Dana’s amorous intentions toward Gordon for that evening. And the heat is on the fritz in the studio, forcing the anchors to don puffy down jackets and earflap hats during commercial breaks. (Asked to enumerate his two concerns, Dan amends it to three, protests against rank-ordering, then stipulates: “If I did number them, certainly high on the list would be the climate in this room.”)
Where “Mary Pat Shelby” shows people being given a wide berth to deal with stress, conflict, and difficult decisions in their own way, “The Head Coach” illustrates how useful opening one’s eyes to others can be in those same fraught moments. The episode asks: To whom are you going to listen? Consider the way that Jeremy and Casey respond to letters arriving in the Sports Night offices. Jeremy goes miles out of his way to intercept a threatening salvo lobbed at Natalie, and angrily mocks its writers’ intelligence (“‘passion’with the less common ‘sh’spelling”) to prove his point that Natalie needs protection. Casey triumphantly reads from letters praising the way he’s going after Coach Rostenkowki (“‘Lately I think you and me are the only ones who know anything about football’”) to prove his point that his lonely crusade is valid. Now, Casey has his epiphany when his grudge against the coach runs smack into his desire to prove Gordon wrong; as he demolishes Gordon’s proposals for better fourth-down calls, Casey realizes that his hater campaign has no element of superior judgment to justify it. But Jeremy’s situation has a twist. Jeremy has a species of breakthrough when he gives up on the idea of whisking Natalie away to the perfect evening, but then he crashes, beat down by the pressure of guarding Natalie twenty-four/seven. It’s really Natalie who has her mind changed by Jeremy’s simple gesture (“I wanted to do something. I like you”) and by Dana’s advice that she needs to let people help her—that receiving their help gratefully is in actuality a gift she can give to them.
There are writing flourishes in this arc that don’t work at all. “Mary Pat Shelby,” in particular, whiffs its attempt to make “How much do you love me?” into an organizing principle for the episode, which tragically takes some of the air out of that final scene with Natalie and Patrick in the hallway. Just as well, though, since I’m too busy yelling at Natalie not to antagonize a man who gave his girlfriend a concussion—don’t be alone with him at all, frankly, let alone tell him that you’re filing charges—to be overly concerned with Sorkin’s awkward leitmotiv. But these two episodes get so many of the tiny things right, and often exhibit enough discipline to resist making the big things freakish and embarrassing. Dan’s “You had me until the last part” reaction to Dana’s litany of reasons she’s asking Isaac to break Natalie’s story. His “I threw one for nothing” response to Casey questioning whether he’s violating his values vacation by giving that advice. Jeremy’s earnest, half-aggrieved and half-relieved “It really has been!” when Dana notes that his love has been “pure and chaste from afar.” His exquisite character moment leaving Isaac’s office after reading the death threat: “I’m sorry I raised my voice.” And most wonderfully, that candle stub stuck into a mini-basketball and balanced on an empty tin can that is supposed to provide ambience for Jeremy’s Chinese takeout dinner date.
That’s those incommensurate frames of reference converging in a hasty, improvised gesture. Natalie understands and accepts. Dana, unfortunately, is protecting herself from the cold in the studio by huddling in Gordon’s suit coat, and she can’t wait to get out of the office to a setting where that’s more appropriate and less confusing to her professional standing. She’s stabilized the conditions under which her colleagues can perform. But there’s only so much overlap and fuzziness in the frames that she wants to deal with. Too bad she’s already muddied the waters by asserting her right to wear that blue dress not just to her dinner date, but to the workday that precedes it. Too bad she can’t be as honest about the roles she’s performing, and who her audience is, as she counsels Jeremy and Natalie to be.
Grades: “Mary Pat Shelby”, B+; “The Head Coach, Dinner And The Morning Mail”, A-
- Christian Patrick is played by Brad Henke, who was a crony of Jacob’s on Lost and most recently a hulking Bennett relative on Justified.
- And there’s the inimitable Ray Wise as one of Patrick’s handlers, blustering “This is a third-rate show on a fourth-rate network!” and giving Dan the chance to reply: “Yes, but that’s all going to change once I grow a goatee.”
- Dan mocks Casey for being “conversationally anal-retentive” (“Let me answer that question in four parts with the fourth part first and the third part last”), but of course everyone in Sorkinland talks in lists because lists are awesome and hilarious. Casey first defends his Rostenkowski roasting with an abortive list (“I do it proudly, I do it vigorously, and I do it for the following three reasons”), then later rejects it in the same format (“I gave in, I saw the light, I rose above myself, and I did it for the following three reasons”).
- Last week the notion that monster-truck rallies inevitably follow Sports Night on CSC was questioned in the comments, and the theory that the trucks illustrate (for some reason) the Sports Night credits was propounded. Because “The Head Coach” is all about the desire to vindicate one’s view of the world, I’m happy to report that the monster trucks are clearly “coming up next” on CSC as proven by the graphic that accompanies them on the monitor.
- Peter Krause gets his own chance to underplay (in a more seething vein than Josh Charles’ serene performances, though) when Gordon blathers on in the studio about all the bustle (“It’s like a real television show,” Casey mutters) and Dana being a “feisty girl” (“Yeah, she’s a pip”).
- Natalie loses the audio from Michigan State (Dana follows standard operating procedure in response: “First, everybody stand up and see if you’re sitting on it”), and later fails to get Troy Aikman factoids on the teleprompter, forcing Dan to improvise with made-up Tony Orlando factoids. Fun real fact: Although his mother was Puerto Rican, Orlando’s father was indeed Greek.
- Casey puts great stock in being a topic on sports talk radio in the Great Lakes region. His assessment of the four Great Lakes he has visited: “They’re great.”
- “I want this now, I’m an adult and this is important to me.” Dan says it about his goatee plan, but it could just as easily be the theme song for Natalie, Jeremy, or Dana in these two episodes, couldn’t it?