Sports Night: “April Is The Cruelest Month”/“Bells And A Siren”
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Sports Night: “April Is The Cruelest Month”/“Bells And A Siren”

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Sports Night

“April Is The Cruelest Month”/“Bells And A Siren”

Season 2, Episode 19
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Sports Night

“April Is The Cruelest Month”/“Bells And A Siren”

Season 2, Episode 20

April Is The Cruelest Month” (season two, episode nineteen; originally aired 3/28/2000)/“Bells And A Siren” (season two, episode twenty; originally aired 4/4/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

Telling any story entails accepting that miracles happen. Yes, one of the great virtues of successful fiction is its “honesty,” its perceived refusal to stack the deck and palm a card to make sure the deal serves the purposes of the tale. But all storytellers have to accept that they are, for all intents and purposes, omnipotent—that their task is to direct attention away from their machinations and help them experience surprise, wonder, and dread at the scripted, planned, and preordained. From the perspective of someone reading the episode synopses for the season, then, the set-things-right plot of “April Is The Cruelest Month” couldn’t come as any great shock; all breakups lead to makeups in the circumscribed world of an ensemble television show. But in any story worth its salt, it’s not what happens, but how it happens, that’s ultimately important.

And so what’s most wonderful about this episode isn’t that people find ways to start repairing their relationships, moving and heartwarming as that is, but that the characters in this story explicitly claim, for us and for each other, that we have control over our stories. At the most critical moment, too—when the overseers are cracking the whip and refusing to give us straw to make bricks and we’re fugitives from the law because we accidentally killed some Egyptian. What I love about the last moments of “April” is how Isaac celebrates a miraculous turnaround (“About damn time the cavalry showed up around here, wouldn’t you say?”) when nothing in the external circumstance oppressing our heroes has changed. And yet, because they’re all together again, and what was broken is now somehow whole, thanks to nothing other than people’s decisions about how to be with each other, they feel like they’ve gained the upper hand. Pharoah doesn’t know it, but there’s a big Red Sea wave out there with his name on it.

Jeremy the script doctor (“there are sections of the Haggadah that, quite frankly, deserve a polish”) deserves most of the credit for this mighty act, but let’s not discount the contributions of Dan, who is the first to hold out an olive branch after ostentatiously staying out of everyone’s way for a week so they won’t have to feel uncomfortable around him. Jeremy helpfully prompts him to “throw open our doors” and especially to invite Casey to the between-shows Seder, but it’s Dan who takes the difficult plunge; “We never have had a Seder together, me and you,” he mentions offhandedly. When Casey turns him down, Dan’s curt, syllabic responses as he turns his back (“Oh. Yeah. Good. Thanks”) vibrate with anger and disappointment. He made a gesture and now he feels foolish for giving Casey another chance to twist the knife. So it’s even more impressive when he gives Casey another chance, another opening, with the simple act of asking him the purpose of his video store errand. On the surface, Dan’s “about what?” means nothing. But in context, it’s an invitation to have the kind of conversation they haven’t been able to have since the on-air incident. Casey lets it go by, almost like a serve he wasn’t expecting, but he comes back with his own tiny move, asking again about the Seder, and Dan doesn’t turn and walk away this time. He stands his ground and although he doesn’t repeat his invitation, he meets Casey’s eyes. The doors have been thrown open. When Casey shows up with his seemingly incongruous line about how seeing the video store guy made him think about how he wouldn’t trade the last ten years with Dan for anything, the storyteller has given us a chance to connect those dots once again (an act of divine grace that cannot be overstated). Friendship is worth more than fame. And solidarity in the face of impossible odds may not change the Vegas line, but it sure makes a miracle seem more plausible.

Words cannot describe how wonderful it is to watch Casey and Dan banter on the set about the French restaurant in New Jersey at which Dan’s publicist wants him to be seen: “I like the French,” Casey professes. “I like their toast. I like their dressing. I like their fries. I like their maids, I like their kissing … I like their mustard. I like Mr. French.” From the depths of “Draft Day Part II” all the way to Dan’s grin as Casey carries the joke over to the show opening with an exuberant “Bon soir!”—it’s an immense relief, but even more so, a timely and pointed reminder that we care about these characters when their pain gives us pain, because we first were invited to participate in their mutual joy.

That being said, “Bells And A Siren” is strangely stitched together. Logically, the subplot about Dan’s publicist couldn’t come anywhere else in the season (he hires a publicist because he agrees with Casey’s post-power-rankings advice that he needs one to raise his celebrity profile), but when he’s berated over wanting to be famous without wanting to debase himself seeking fame, it feels like a leftover discussion from the therapists’ office a couple of months ago. It’s also the kind of arc that might have played out over more than half an episode in any other circumstances, so when Catherine the publicist’s assistant gets to make her (awesome) speech about Dan belittling her for doing the job he hired her to do, we might be forgiven for being a bit startled at finding her in full-on Sorkin truth-telling mode in only her second scene. (The breakneck pace does pay off when Dan imposes a no-Jersey condition on Catherine’s continued employment, then recants “No conditions” without missing a beat as soon as she pushes back.)

But so much of what I’ve come to appreciate about this second season is in full force in “Bells” that I’m overwhelmed, almost, anticipating how much I’m going to miss it. Everyone apologetically taking part in Dana’s plan to sap Natalie’s confidence before her SNL interview (“You’re short and nobody likes you very much,” Dana tosses out there on top of her first efforts; “I wouldn’t worry about the height thing,” Jeremy piles on, and then Dan wanders by with an ineffectual “Hey, dumbass!”) produces explosives laughs while demonstrating with zero sentimentality how much Natalie is beloved. Isaac’s laconic, stony disappointment that his grandson is afraid of his stroke-muddled speech and gait breaks my heart without resorting to sap or easy answers.

And Jeremy messing with Casey’s desire to follow the saga of Continental Corp stock while completely devoid of computer savvy is old-school adorable. “It’s technologically calibrated to flag us, essentially, when there is an important business update,” Casey explains to Dana, and it’s that “essentially” that makes me laugh out loud; he’s affecting to reduce what he believes to be the complexity of Jeremy’s command center to her without going into details, and “essentially” stands for all the specialized hacking he thinks is going on, for his note of condescension about Dana’s ability to understand it, for his own poorly-hidden lack of comprehension, and for the awe and wonder about being plugged into the story in real time, all at once. “Essentially.” It’s a miracle word, coming off the bench to hit a comedic grand slam. And it’s immediately followed by the portent of Jeremy’s facetious “red lights are going to start going off on the computer with bells and a siren, and that means we’re all in trouble” coming true.

The hand of the storyteller, like the hand of God, giveth and taketh away. Wrubel, Tarses, Ludvari, Walpert, and Sorkin have a leg up on Yahweh in one respect, though. They’re humble enough to let us participate when they pull the strings.

Stray observations:

  • It’s guest-star-o-rama! There’s John de Lancie, best known as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation as Continental Corps’ CFO (and wow, his “A casual observer would never guess you were from a good family, Dana” is a cruel line). Tim DeKay aka Peter Burke from White Collar is back as network suit Ray. And that’s Alanna Ubach, who cut her teeth on Beakman’s World and has gone on to a prominent career in cartoon voicework and guest roles (I last saw her on Men Of A Certain Age) as Catherine.
  • It’s also Hey, It’s The Year 2000!-o-rama! The Sydney summer Olympics! Marla Maples (whose turn in Will Rogers’ Follies was way back in 1993)! Felicity! Best of all: “We’re very competitive with MCI Worldcom,” Casey announces to Jeremy, with absolutely no awareness that in just two years that giant communications company will be a smoking bankrupt hole in the ground.
  • “I got proactive! The power of the internet, my friend. I got online,” Casey boasts, before admitting: “A guy from tech support taught me.”
  • If there is one fly in the “April Is The Cruelest Month” ointment, and I guess I have to admit there is because it’s a big hairy ugly one, it’s Natalie patronizing Jeremy about Jenny (“She was good for the boy in you, but not the man in you,” errrgghhhh) and then Jeremy getting to waltz out on an even meaner, more horrible superior note (“She’s slept with, if possible, more men that you have,” uuggghhherrrendscenealreadyendendendendend).
  • Isaac: “I said, ‘Before we start a panic, let’s know what we’re talking about.’ Did you keep it to yourself?” Dana: “I told Natalie.” Isaac: “And what happened?” Dana: “Panic ensued.”
  • Casey is excited about Nabisco’s stock rising, because having bought 10 shares three hours ago, it’s “the heartbeat of my portfolio.”
  • “Nor is it problematic that I am talking to myself, for that is the creative process.”