Sports Night: “Cliff Gardner”/“Louise Revisited”
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Sports Night: “Cliff Gardner”/“Louise Revisited”

“Cliff Gardner” (season two, episode three; originally aired 10/19/1999)/“Louise Revisited” (season two, episode four; originally aired 10/26/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

Last week, looking forward to the effect of the Sam Donovan arc on the Sports Night ensemble, I commented: “One of Aaron Sorkin’s most cherished human values is loyalty, and he’s going to rally the troops around a beleaguered Dana and Isaac …” And this week, Sorkin makes one of his signature moves around this theme, as a perceived threat to the family reveals himself to be, in reality, one of its fiercest defenders.

The problem with loyalty, at least on its own, is that it is profoundly amoral. But add to it a sense of justice, in the form of preference for the relatively powerless and bias in favor of creative competence (as opposed to maximization of economic return), and loyalty loses this arbitrary character. If the only reason we choose sides is because of kinship ties or long acquaintance, loyalty is just an evolutionary response to strangeness. As viewers, we understand and applaud the way Dana’s staff sticks up for her and for themselves, because they’re our friends. But until Donovan makes the distinction between uninformed meddling, of the kind represented by J.J. and his Continental network suits, and expert assistance in pursuit of goals worth achieving, we ought to be a little uncomfortable with ourselves for it. Donovan is in a position to know not only how to get the desired numbers, but how to do so without making the numbers the ultimate end. Because to him, and to our Sports Night crew, the task at hand is not making numbers, but making television.

That’s the point of his story about Cliff Gardner, Philo Farnsworth’s boyhood friend and brother-in-law, who leaves his assembly-line job to learn glassblowing from scratch so that Philo can have the glass tubes his televisual invention needs. “They knew two minutes after I walked in the door that I was a guy who knew how to do something,” Donovan emphasizes to the network suits, implicitly contrasting that knowledge with the kind J.J. has. “I can help. I can make glass tubes. And that’s what they need.” In this absolutely marvelous speech, in this absolutely marvelous episode, we discover that Donovan sees himself as there to be part of the team making great television, and therefore he naturally must be on the side of Our Heroes who are there to do the same thing—but who have learned how to be content with doing it in third place because they’re on a third place network.

It’s a bit of a letdown to move from the classic Sorkinalia of “Cliff Gardner” to the muddle of “Louise Revisited.” The downward slide from Dana valiantly holding the meeting with J.J. and the suits together, receiving the binders full of notes (“We appreciate the style, but not everyone is as smart as we are”) while curbing the utter disdain of her staff, to Dana trying to explain why she took off her panties in the middle of dinner, is disturbingly steep. Now, I enjoy the stupid web poll subplot, featuring Dan’s utter disgust at Casey’s obviously rigged numbers and Jeremy’s evil satisfaction at finally emerging on the right end of a practical joke. The conversation between Dana and Casey about her high school Spanish club dinner date Cab Calloway (“We had a hell of a time finding his Spanish name,” she reminisces offhandedly) is a thing of beauty. And Dan’s overture of friendship to Sam, recalling the relentless positivity that I find so winning in Season 1’s Rebecca arc, demonstrates one of the character’s best qualities: his willingness to serve himself up a big slab of humble pie, to take more pride in being the bigger man than in being proven right.

But Dana’s panties-dropping, from the word “panties” itself (a word that makes me want to cut my ears off) to her mumbled confession that she never took off her underwear in public before because she thought it was “dirty,” has a thorough-going juvenile quality that renders it bizarre and off-putting. It’s even worse that she flirts with Casey with that underwear, stuffing it in his pocket as a weird fetishistic promise to be redeemed six months from now. Sorkin may have written the plot based on a real incident, but transplanted to this character, in this situation, it reeks of misapplied girlishness, like an attempt to defuse Dana’s sexuality by turning it into a manic pixie dream girl quirk. Natalie can pull that shit off, but on Dana, in the middle of a crisis on multiple fronts, it comes off all wrong.

So far this season, Sports Night seems determined to juxtapose its best with its worst. It’s always been that seesaw with Sorkin. When he catches a wave, everything he writes slices cleanly through the television medium, gleaming and true and utterly bracing. But in the doldrums, he can’t convince us anything his characters say is true.

Stray observations:

  • An interloper misremembering the regulars’ names is such an obvious joke, but Macy plays it superbly: distracted when he just can’t be bothered (“Donna seems pretty mad,” he comments at the top of “Cliff Gardner”), acidic when he’s doing it on purpose (“Is it Jimbob?” he addresses J.J. and then gives a disbelieving “Really?” when corrected).

  • Dan is so mean and so out of line when he accuses Dana of being a secretary. Then he’s so happy when he makes it right with spackle. “Everything’s fine. I’m looking at tape!” he exits triumphantly.

  • Dan disputes the online poll’s 153-6 tally: “I have plenty of fans.” “At least half a dozen,” Casey agrees.

  • Hey, It’s 1999! (1) Dig that website design, guys. Gray default background, nice! (2) Casey figures out he can hit F12 to refresh the page rather than going back to the homepage every time, which is actually pretty advanced technology for 1999, so props to Sorkin for that one.

  • The 8 o’clock rundown will be at 7:30 today. “Like the Saturday Evening Post, which for a time came out on Sunday,” Jeremy observes.

  • Jeremy is banished from both Natalie’s and Dana’s conversations in the control room during a long segment break. “I’ll just stand over there for five minutes and forty seconds and think about what my life was like before I met any of you,” he announces.

  • Sam: “You’re going to sit in the control room and watch a color test?” Isaac: “I feel like doing something that has something to do with television.”

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