When it works, call it a central organizing principle. When it doesn’t work, call it a gimmick. This week’s episodes rebound from the serialization of the two-episode “assault on Natalie” arc by flaunting their self-containment. In both cases, the conceit isn’t original or fresh. Yet each half-hour ends with a palpable sense of joy, stemming from success at work or camaraderie after the whistle blows. I’m not saying that every episode needs to end in a feel-good moment or freeze-framed laughter. But sitcoms can sometimes perform the function of sending us away from the television happy that people we like notched one in the win column.
“Dear Louise” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 11/10/1998)
Commenters have noted that Aaron Sorkin has frequently used the device of having a character write a letter explaining what’s going on in their workplace as a framework on which to hang the action (notably in The West Wing’s “The Stackhouse Filibuster”). But he’s carrying on a long tradition: M*A*S*H invoked the “letter home” trope repeatedly, starting with “Dear Dad” in its first season; the format has its origin in the epistolary novels that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As a teleplay structure, the letter home has much to recommend it, and “Dear Louise” shows off those advantages. It’s a way of sliding gracefully from the camera’s usually omniscient gaze into the perspective of one character. And Jeremy makes for a keen pair of eyes through which to be reintroduced to the workplace and its cast. He’s still the newbie, still trying to prove himself, still something of an outsider; it’s unexpectedly touching when he gets the invitation to go drinking with the crew after the show and writes about how much that means to him. We’ve all felt the import of that first gesture including us in the group, so it serves as a moment of intimacy connecting us to Jeremy’s experience beyond the quirks that usually define him as a sitcom character.
That’s one of the strengths of the letter trope. Think about wiseacre Hawkeye Pierce writing to his dad about the camp and the surgery and the war: Suddenly he’s defined not by the way he interacts with the other characters, but by the fuller and more nuanced internal meaning he assigns to those situations. “Dear Louise” lets us know how much Jeremy admires the people with whom he works, what strengths he sees in them, and how fragile he feels when he lets them down. In the rundown meeting, when Isaac suddenly remembers the significance of the name he was handed earlier and Dana promises him that his old friend’s illness will be inserted in the show before the first break, Jeremy bulls through the situation with blinkers on: The first segment of the show is too packed with top 25 games and so forth, so it can’t possibly fit, he argues. He feels terrible that he missed the human element that he finds so special about this particular show with this particular crew, because he was too focused on the minutiae of doing his job.
These little character moments are counterbalanced by the two subplots about our Sports Night anchors, which are all about broad gestures that trigger more laugh track whoops (and require more laugh track pauses) than we’ve heard in the whole series so far. Dan has writer’s block, and Natalie tries to shock him out of it by doing things like throwing water in his face. Well, “things like” is an overstatement; throwing water in his face is pretty much her go-to move. I’m amazed at how funny this turns out to be, over and over. Even after only six episodes, there’s a marked distance between Sports Night and the kind of show where people throw water in each other’s faces (and do spit takes! Dan does a spit take at one point!), so for the show to present that kind of comedy repeatedly and so thoroughly in itself makes me laugh. After the first glass of water to the face, Natalie explains that she’s going to cure his writer’s block by surprising him with the unexpected. “That was step one. There’s not going to be any more water,” she explains. “What’s step two?” Dan asks. Splash! Friends, this may not be what we expect from Aaron Sorkin, but that fact only burnishes the gleam on the comedy gold.
Casey, meanwhile, is taking great delight in needling Dana and Gordon about the big case that Gordon has just lost despite having the defendant on tape saying “I killed him; I killed him; I killed him dead.” Dana accuses Casey of having “an envy of postgraduate degrees.” And in another typically sitcom (but nonetheless hilarious) scene, Gordon puts Casey in his place by threatening to bring charges over his participation in the Monday Night Football office pool. “I’m just happy to be here, happy to be talking to you, happy to be having sex with Dana every night,” Gordon quips, supremely comfortable with his position in this romantic rivalry. The situation may be contrived, but it certainly is building nicely, utilizing both Peter Krause’s ability to go from zero to simmering to apoplectic in a heartbeat and Ted McGinley’s smug confidence to wonderful effect.
A letter is a snapshot of a moment. We think of them as more permanent and consequential than our dashed-off emails and texts, because they might be saved and because we can reach back into historical lives with them. But the framing device of “Dear Louise”—culminating in an exuberant office dance party—suggests that the letter Jeremy is writing doesn’t capture the timeless essence of his job and his co-workers, but just their state at this given instant. Pour a few discount blue drinks down everyone’s throat, and their conflicts—whether episode-specific like Dan’s writer’s block or season-long like Dana and Casey’s romantic entanglement—dissipate in the pure experience of the present. Yet those moments have a long-term trajectory; everyone knows that if you get some alcohol in Dana she will bust out her-her-her boogie shoes, and boogie with you. It’s something to look forward to and something to savor. Maybe even something to immortalize in a letter home.
“Thespis” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 11/17/1998)
I remember this episode from the initial run with great fondness, because it was the first time I’d seen this show pull off something that could be described as a playlet, complete with unity of time and place, with the kind of grand theatrical aplomb to which Sorkin’s mannered dialogue always seemed to allude. “Thespis” uses a curse as its gimmick, because whenever you want to throw brickbats at your characters and have no particular reason for the universe to take sides against them, you can’t do better than a good old-fashioned curse. Doesn’t matter if the curse has any basis in reality, of course; what matters is that the characters accept it as a central organizing principle to explain their sudden haplessness.
The episode takes place in roughly real time over the first 30 minutes of the show-within-the-show. (Why 30 minutes when Sports Night lasts an hour? Because our show, the one we’re watching, only lasts 30 minutes. Thus Dana asserts right up top that if anything bad is going to happen, it will happen in the top half of the show, meaning that we’re all watching those huge red numbers of the on-air clock tick toward 00:30:00 as our safe haven.) Dan asks Casey if he knows the significance of November 23, and after some the control-room crew speculation, Jeremy provides a definitive answer: On November 23, 534 B.C., a Greek named Thespis spoke the first words as an actor playing a character on stage. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, Thespis’ innovation was to step out of the chorus and portray someone other than himself, and he was rewarded with the first prize for tragedy at the Dionysia festival.
A mere interesting historical tidbit? By no means! For now Thespis is a mischievous ghost wreaking annual havoc on performances of all kinds. So the remote uplink goes down midway through the half-hour, sending Sports Night off the air and prompting Casey's immortal deadpan: “I was on television for a little while there, and then I wasn’t anymore.” The turkey Dana is thawing on the studio’s light grid in order to impress her mother for Thanksgiving first drips, then plummets onto the studio desk. And more ominously, Isaac’s daughter on the opposite coast is rushed into an emergency caesarian because of placenta previa, leaving him fixated on the fight he had with his wife just before she left for the airport and frantic to get on a plane for California.
But Dan isn’t thinking of Thespis when he queries Casey about that date. Turns out it’s their anchorversary, the first show they ever did together at Lone Star Sports. Dan has long suspected that their partner act was Casey’s second choice for a career in television, knowing that Casey was courted for Conan O’Brien’s eventual slot on NBC. After getting heckled about it incessantly during commercial breaks, Casey goes to Isaac and confesses that he never told Dan the truth about that time in their careers. “You’ve got to let people know how you feel about them,” Isaac advises. “Small price for what you get in return, and what you get in return is a steal. The rest is all vanity.” What Casey tells Dan is that he turned down the NBC late-night slot, infuriating his then-wife Lisa. “Was it the beginning of the end?” Dan asks, and the upshot is this: Casey chose his professional marriage over his real marriage, or at least over the ambitions that his spouse couldn’t let go.
Sorkin frequently sets the stage for a big moment and then allows a much smaller one to percolate to the top as the work’s real theme. Here it’s the notion of “the gesture.” Dana is certain that her mother is coming for Thanksgiving solely to offer judgment on her inadequacies (not being married, working in sports, being unable to cook a turkey), but far more significant is Dana’s gesture of hosting family and her mother’s gesture of attending. Isaac obsesses over an offhand comment he made about not being old enough to be a grandfather, and the way it convinced his wife he wasn’t excited enough about the baby, but by the end he is handing out cigars for his new grandson Matthew and reveling in that traditional gesture of happy patriarchs. And Dan tells Casey, “You would have been great. You would have been really great,” retroactively blessing his alternate history as a late night talk show host and giving him the permission Lisa never did to be somebody else, if that’s what he had wanted. “Thank you,” Casey says, refocusing at last on something other than his own guilt about the situation. “I appreciate the gesture.”
Thespis the sixth-century B.C. actor made a gesture that separated forever the world created on the stage and the world that surrounds it. “Thespis” the Sports Night episode reverses that momentous division. Everything we do, Sorkin asserts, is a performance, and it is being witnessed and interpreted by an audience. We players, enacting our roles, may misunderstand the meaning of what we are doing, and may not be able to wrest ourselves out from behind our masks to understand how the audience—the people we care about—are receiving it. We think it’s about what we think. But more important than what is inside our heads is the gesture, the action—no matter what lies behind it, no matter whether it connects or strikes or causes anything else to happen or not. The doing is the thing.
Thus the great relief when Dana decides that news of a tragic public embarrassment across town at the Sheraton means that Thespis has moved on to spread havoc elsewhere. Like performers everywhere, these characters never questioned whether the show could go on. And that clock ticks on to the second half of the show, the part not destined to be witnessed by us viewers separated from their world by our television screens. The show ends, but the imperative to perform never does.
Grades: “Dear Louise”, A-; “Thespis”, A
- I couldn’t quite fit it in my discussion of “Dear Louise” above, but Natalie giving Jeremy stamps after kissing him is one of the loveliest little moments this show ever produced. When you need a stamp, one materializes. Stamps!
- When Isaac grumbles that his teenage daughter is dating Chad, the newly named president of the Connecticut Young Black Republican Caucus, Dana observes wryly that “a lot of people are running that way these days.” “Well, I don’t want them sniffing around my women!” Isaac huffs with wonderful gusto.
- Casey invites Jeremy to go to The Smoking Dog with the enticing description, “You wear a thing, then something else happens for $2 less than it would before.”
- Not only is Andruw Jones spelled with a U, as Elliot points out, but it is not pronounced Ahhhndrew, Jon Miller.
- When Casey is talking about Mark Gaston on camera, we get a flashy shot circling around the anchor desk that is unprecedented on the show to this point. It’s Thomas Schlamme’s workaround for dialogue-in-motion when the characters are unable to walk and talk due to being seated or otherwise stationary.
- Update on Dan Rydell: Still hates soccer. After introducing MLS highlights with mock gravitas (“Without delay, the Miami Fusion, the D.C. United, let’s go to the action”), the scene cuts to the control room where we hear Dan continuing in the background: “Blake kicks the ball with high hopes that it’ll enter the goal but it does not!”
- Update on Casey McCall: Still tends to cite the St. Crispin’s Day speech when improvising.
- Dana: “Please don’t call him Deputy Gordon.” Casey: “He hasn’t made deputy?!”