“A Girl Named Pixley” (season two, episode nine; originally aired 12/28/1999)/“The Giants Win The Pennant, The Giants Win The Pennant!” (season two, episode ten; originally aired 1/11/2000)
Some workplace comedies ditch their workplace premises almost entirely as their run progresses. The audience draw is the personalities, not the skillsets that bring them together. Think of how little radio got made on NewsRadio after the first few episodes, other than the occasional bit in the booth or Dave’s pleas for someone to cart the promos. Some workplace comedies let their premises fade into the background but frequently bring them back into the foreground for the purposes of generating conflict; think of the way sales quotas or managerial drama functioned on The Office. And some workplace comedies—the Aaron Sorkin ones, specifically—keep the job front and center, operating under the endearing impression that viewers are as fascinated by how the sausage gets made as by the lives and loves of the people who make it.
At least I find this endearing, because I’m an inveterate voyeur when it comes to other people’s jobs. I want to know everything about the way things are made, and the difficulties and opportunities that their makers encounter. And I love nothing more than to watch people do things that I can’t do and deploy skills that I don’t possess. That makes Aaron Sorkin’s inside-baseball explorations of politics, media, entrepreneurship, you name it, simultaneously thrilling and frustrating. Thrilling because the accumulation of detail about these jobs comes from this impulse that I share. Frustrating because in order to generate comedy, these shows offload all the exaggeration that a different creator would have put into the workplace premise onto the people who populate it. Because Sorkin is so very interested in politics and media, his shows have to take them seriously, and his characters have to exhibit obsessive focus on them. Their jobs can’t be wacky. So if wackiness is needed, it has to come from people. Thus at times the mismatch between the life-or-death tension of the work imperative, and the crazed flibbertigibbeting of the people doing that work, gets way, way too broad. The workplace becomes a sanctuary for self-righteousness. And the people, when they aren’t sock puppets to express that self-righteousness, become cartoons.
I’m thinking about this not because the episodes this week necessarily illustrate the promise and perils of this delicate balance, but because of how annoying I find the workplace B-story in “A Girl Named Pixley.” The idea that there is no sports news, causing the staff to scramble for minutiae to fill 42 potential minutes of dead air, indeed leads to funny dialogue (Dana: “I’m about to make this man the most famous seventh-place archer in the history of sports; the least he can do is die in a timely manner and be gay”). But it’s a wacky-workplace premise, the kind of thing an eager young writer making a pitch to a tired old show might come up with (“What if Mel’s Diner doesn’t get its food delivery, and the staff try to hide the lack of food from the customers?”). It’s unrealistic, even for the relatively early days of cable sports channels. And it’s out of place on the kind of show Sorkin makes, where the one thing nobody is ever at a loss for is ideas on how to fill up airtime.
By contrast, “The Giants Win The Pennant, The Giants Win The Pennant!” has a classic Sorkin workplace plot: A character single-handedly pursues a story and discovers an unexpected twist affecting his ability to bring it to fruition. At first Dan’s motivation for proposing a piece on Bobby Thompson’s 1951 homer is a bit random (Jeremy: “It’s the 49th anniversary”; Dan: “Deserving of a tribute!”), but after he runs into Isaac’s refusal to go on camera to offer first-hand reminiscences, he reveals that as a kid he wore out a tape of that famous Russ Hodges call. And that personal reasoning dovetails beautifully with the semi-surreptitious monitoring of Isaac the staff performs. Their own focus on his stroke leads them to the erroneous conclusion that it’s the reason Isaac doesn’t want to appear on television. Isaac is heartbreaking in his regret over not just that October afternoon washing his hands in the men’s room, but all the other missed opportunities: “You get older, and it just joins all the other things in your life that happened while you were looking the other way.” And with those words ringing in his ears, Dan takes charge of the dithering and game-playing he sees in the dysfunctional Casey-Dana axis. “I need to be left out of it, because I like Dana, and I know what’s going to happen next,” he tells Casey. “It was an idiotic dating plan, what did you think was going to happen?” he tells Dana. Own your regrets, live with your choices, and don’t make out that other people are somehow equal partners in your mistakes. Powerful stuff, and beautifully connected to the business of making a television show about sports, as well as to the personal histories of the people who ended up here making this particular show about sports.
“A Girl Named Pixley,” of course, is a turning point in this season not because of what happens in the workplace, but what happens outside of it. And maybe that’s a brilliant stroke in and of itself, regardless of how out of place I find the vamping back at headquarters. After all, Dana’s dating plan is premised on her being able to keep her hooks in Casey because they see each other every day. Even in this episode, as it all begins to fall apart, Casey is still trying to gain the upper hand within the confines of the plan by reporting details of his date, before and after, to Dana. “Jealousy is rearin’!” he reports to Dan through the conference room door while reporting the disastrous end of his talk with Pixley to Dana. (“‘Kay,” Dan deadpans, in the show’s funniest moment.) So far, so good with the game-playing disguised as full disclosure. (“I’m all about honesty, honesty and not rushing through dinner,” Casey proclaims in defense of his own dumb, callous move: telling Pixley “In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be here with you; I’d be here with someone else.”) But an episode later, when Casey wriggles free from Dana’s spell because she foolishly encouraged him to pretend to have a life outside of work, she finally, oh-so-satisfyingly faces the limits of her irresistibility.
On a show where everybody cares about each other because of their prior care about the work they’ve come together to do, the work always comes first. It drives the personalities, the action, and the relationships. After telling off Gordon for not respecting her work, Dana draws the wrong lesson. She believes that it’s evident to everyone that nobody from Outside can ever fulfill their needs. The real tragedy of the idiotic dating plan is that Dana, who took so much from such a monumental jerk in season one, becomes the exact inverse of that jerk in season two. And just like Gordon was smugly certain she had nowhere to run—so much so that he felt perfectly safe screwing her rival—Dana fails to recognize the reality of the “other women” part in her directive to Casey to date other women. Sally Sasser was a betrayal because she was an insider. Pixley is a betrayal because she is an outsider. Let’s do a find-and-replace on the script pages where Dan sees a therapist and tack an extra “a” onto the name, because boy, does she need help.
- There’s something weirdly pathological, too, about the way Casey decides he wants to pursue Pixley. Just as with Dan and Rebecca, it starts with her not giving him his propers as a big honkin’ deal in the broadcasting world and a desirable catch in the mating realm. But it’s cemented for Casey by Dana’s jealous reaction, and for Pixley by the fanboy stars in the eyes of her date Howard (played by Tom Cavanaugh, TV’s Ed), which lead her to regard Casey as somewhat of the big deal he claimed to be, and of course by Casey’s own brash pursuit of her. Which is also kinda the way Dan and Rebecca played out, except that Casey doesn’t have to work very hard to make it happen. It might be believable enough to make this bit of plot machinery go, but it’s also squicky in the way it plays into some stock Sorkin psychology.
- Also Peter Krause nonchalantly takes off his shirt while changing for his date, and men popping their shirts off on television freaks me the hell out.
- I like the Jeremy part of the B-story in “Pixley” with Jeremy overthinking the potential of accepting an award, especially because it gets Jeremy and Isaac together for some great back-and-forth. “If I were to just suddenly pop this thing up to ten, would you just go flying out onto Fifth Avenue?” Jeremy wonders about Isaac’s treadmill. And then after Isaac caustically wonders if he knows lots of people who really want to win, Jeremy offers some well-articulated almost-faux sycophantism: “Surviving this stroke has made you quite the wit.”
- When Natalie suggests they fill time by covering an unusual bridge betting sequence and Casey asks “We’re going to cover bridge?” Dan observes: “Sport of kings.” Apparently in Dan’s world any card game qualifies as the sport of kings.
- It’s the dead of winter in Sports Night season two but the first official days of summer when I’m writing about it, so I find myself with an unhealthy fixation on the massive turtleneck sweaters everybody’s wearing in these episodes. In Pixley there’s the thick neutral-marled one engulfing Natalie, and in “Giants” it’s Howard’s nebbishy gray number and Dana’s please-never-wear-yellow-again abomination. Thank goodness Dan’s awesome slate-colored cabled raglan in “Giants” is a crew neck.
- “The ol’ stroke!” Dan muses after Jeremy suggests to him why Isaac doesn’t want to appear on camera.
- After Dana is proven wrong about the incorrectness of using “momentarily” to mean “in a moment,” Natalie becomes fascinated by the M section of the dictionary. “Monestrus means experiencing estrus once each year or breeding season,” she reports. “What’s estrus?” Chris asks innocently, and Natalie brightly flips to a whole new letter: “Let’s find out!”
- Nice long scene for technical director Dave in “Giants,” ending with this great moment: “You like sports, don’t you, Dan?” “I really do.”
- Dan: “I’m on Isaac patrol.” Dana: “Where is he?” Dan: “I dunno.”