“Celebrities” (season two, episode fifteen; originally aired 2/29/2000)/“The Local Weather” (season two, episode sixteen; originally aired 3/7/2000)
As TV Guide brief sitcom episode descriptions go, “Jeremy dates a porn star” has a certain classic quality. Wackiness: check. Guest star: check. Double-takes from all the other characters: check. “Oh no they didn’t!” gasps from a jaded TV audience: check. Of course, it’s precisely such slug-friendly, hijinks-ensue predictability that had me wincing when approaching the rewatch of this storyline. I think what I was most dreading, and what turns out to be the nadir of these two episodes for me, was Jeremy getting lectured again for being an uptight prude. When Jenny the porn star screams at the man chivalrously offering her an umbrella—well, I’ve had it with people on this show getting all self-righteous about somebody trying to do them a favor. I hate Jenny for being so hyper-sensitive, and I hate Jeremy for believing enough of her accusations about his fear that he keeps trying to turn it around.
But aside from the fact that it goes straight to that frustratingly obvious place without passing Go or collecting $200, the porn star storyline isn’t inherently bad. I had forgotten how it was paired with Jeremy’s sudden, cruel exclusion from the social life of the office (“My friends are mad at me right now, because I broke up with their girlfriend” Jeremy economically explains to Jenny). I had forgotten how tense it gets as Jeremy obsessively checks his email in an attempt to avoid seeing her again, and how true it is to his character when he reluctantly shows up to deliver the message in person; he’s way too by-the-book to just ditch and let her get the email later, but he hedges his courtesy with unintentionally demeaning caveats about how he’s now doing the right thing twice over. So far at least, the trouble with the porn star plot isn’t that it is ill-conceived, implausible, or unfair to the characters as established. It’s just that it goes from zero to hectoring without pausing at fun.
What saves the porn star plot, at least the idea of it, is the heartbreaking close to “Celebrities” where Jeremy sits in Dan and Casey’s office listening to the others playing the epic party game Natalie organized. He’s not invited to this game because everyone is trying to be nice to Natalie. “This is her thing, what do you want me to do?” Casey shrugs when Jeremy rejects his backhanded invitation. “We feel bad,” Dan assures him when he walks in on the festivities to grab a reference book. So he sits on the sidelines nodding at the right answers and correcting the wrong ones under his breath, abruptly an outsider. Natalie didn’t just get to pick first at the Celebrities team playground-style draft; she got to claim the whole office as her social group and leave Jeremy to go scrounging elsewhere for companionship. And everyone assumes that if they let Jeremy know they know it’s unfair, they’ve done their ethical duty and can then go whoop it up, confident he won’t hold it against them.
So it makes perfect sense that Jeremy would be conflicted over the promise and the peril of Jenny in “The Local Weather,” going so far as to set up a new email account routed through a Finnish anonymizer to contact her through her porn website for the sole purpose of telling her he can’t get involved with her, in an episode that gets into the biggest aesthetic tangle of the season so far. The framing device of Dan telling his therapist about the whole crazy day (using up his allotted hour in the process despite having dropped by to tell her he didn’t need it) is shot so strangely and played with such inert melancholy by Josh Charles, that it throws off the tone every time it reappears. Yet the theme of someone triumphing over the world to date yet being eclipsed in the same moment, doomed to the obscurity of second place, is one of the series’ most powerful. And its presentation—the celebration of the office falling silent, rippling outward from Dan continuing to watch the monitor with foreboding, as their hero Oscar Parrish is bested by unknown Austrian Walter Weingardt—is so perfectly done, yet can’t redeem the episode from Abby’s glib, disastrous therapeutic summary: “People are challenging themselves, trying new things. Dana went to church and found out she liked it, Jeremy’s on an adventure; you wonder why that didn’t happen to you. Meantime, your partner got on the list and you didn’t. Just like Oscar Parrish.” (Don’t get me started on the awfulness of Dana latching onto church as her new thing because “there’s something there for me.” It’s all the ditzy flightiness of The Lion King plotline without any of the humorous follow-through.)
If only the episode weren’t dominated by Jeremy and Jenny stomping back and forth in the rain, yelling at each other about umbrellas, trying and failing to play a Sports Night-style conversation on a terrible, distracting, backlot-fake street corner. (I expected Ted Mosby and Cosmo Kramer to bustle by amongst the extras.) Absent that, maybe we could appreciate how Dan gradually moves to the edge of the group, replacing Jeremy as the one listening at the door while Casey runs around trying to make sure everyone else is enjoying themselves. Like Jeremy in the last episode, he’s now the man that has been wronged and is supposed to be able to shake it off after a quick conversation (“We’re all right?” “We’re perfectly fine”), but finds himself nonetheless a spectator to a life that used to engage him fully. For both characters, these two episodes constitute brilliant explorations of the limitations of male bonding relationships. What resources do these men have to support each other when one is dealing with rank injustice? How can they grapple with jealousy and resentment, when the only roles they can play for each other are buddy or bro? After all their talk of teamwork throughout the episode, the only thing Casey thinks he has to do for Dan is give him permission to be pissed, and make the hypothetical offer to trade his ranking of 92 for Dan making the power list at all, and the only way Dan can respond is to opine that Casey should be higher and reassure him it’s all good.
I was scared of the porn star plotline, and now I know why. It puts unearned speechifying in Paula Marshall’s mouth, which is not her fault; it chastises Jeremy at the exact low point of his exile from the ensemble, with the excuse that this is the kick in the pants he needs to take a chance on a new relationship; and it presages several more episodes of Jeremy on the defensive about his new girlfriend’s livelihood. But there’s so much that’s resonant and true in these episodes, so much that only Sports Night could ever have shown us. It would be a shame to let a couple of scenes and a stupid rain machine make us miss it.
- Hey, It Is So The Year 2000!: Jeremy uses a throwaway AOL email address for his conversation with Jenny, meaning all subsequent generations will not understand why hearing “Welcome!” followed by silence disappoints him. Jeremy has to run up to the office to consult the Elias Bureau’s Green Book for 1997 (presumably) to find out how many home runs Ken Griffey Jr. hit that year because smart phones have not yet been invented.
- Even if you think the porn star plot is a disaster, surely you’d never want to lose the moment when Jeremy, standing at the copier listening to Casey trying to give clues about the adult film actress he’s just pulled out of the helmet (“I can tell you that she was in The Best of Nina Hartley”), suddenly realizes why Jenny looks so familiar.
- Back from the cutting room floor of last season: Isaac, who boasts of his “comprehensive command of American musicals,” is troubled when he can’t remember the lyrics to “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”
- Given that Jeremy and Natalie’s breakup was partially due to his judgment on the people with whom she wanted to associate, there’s a nice symmetry to Jeremy’s demurral: “I’m nothing like the people you associate with” when he refuses Jenny’s invitation to hang out with her friends. Plus, it gives her the chance to respond: “Nobody’s going to take their penis out and hit you over the head with it.”
- I mentioned the strange framing in the therapist-office scenes in “The Local Weather”; the episode was directed by Timothy Busfield who went on to direct a significant chunk of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (and loads of other non-Sorkin television). Here the close-ups on Dan and Abby emphasize their separateness so much that their back-and-forth never acquires an easy Sorkin rhythm.
- Casey promising everyone their favorite kind of food if they’ll stick around to watch the live feed from Aukland has the same marvelous cumulative structure used for Dan’s attempt to find a substitute anchor so he could go see Tom Waits. This structure also makes superlative use of the Sorkin-Schlamme walk-and-talk blocking style, putting Dan and Casey in the role of supplicants trying to get agreements from busy people, peeling off to lock onto the next target as soon as they do.
- I will never, ever fall out of love with the way Joshua Malina ushers people into and out of rooms and conversations with bows and flourishing hand gestures.
- “Since you’re going out,” Casey asks Dana, “would you mind picking up the food?” “From where?” she asks. “The following six places,” he responds, whipping out his list. It’s only fair that he spends the rest of the episode fretting over this act of delegation. “Are the restaurants close to each other?” Natalie queries when Casey betrays impatience; “Not as close as I led her to believe, but still,” Casey allows. Then, after Dana recounts her epiphany while sheltering in a church, Casey stands in front of her, grasps her shoulders, and gently, regretfully states: “You didn’t get the food.”
- Poor Jeremy. Dana believes he’s somehow divined her detour into church by her heavenly glow or something. “I was standing right here,” he says to no one.
- “Food of many lands!” Casey promises Dan. “Mexico, China, Italy, your own nation of Israel!”
- Dan on why he would have picked Dave instead of Casey: “I need him on nineteenth century French philosophers! I need him on hiphop!”
- “Live on tape delay. I swear to God it says that.”