Sports Night: “Draft Day Part I: It Can’t Rain At Indian Wells”/“Draft Day Part II: The Fall Of Ryan O’Brian”
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Sports Night: “Draft Day Part I: It Can’t Rain At Indian Wells”/“Draft Day Part II: The Fall Of Ryan O’Brian”

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Sports Night

“Draft Day Part I: It Can’t Rain At Indian Wells”/“Draft Day Part II: The Fall Of Ryan O’Brian”

Season 2, Episode 17
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Sports Night

“Draft Day Part I: It Can’t Rain At Indian Wells”/“Draft Day Part II: The Fall Of Ryan O’Brian”

Season 2, Episode 18

“Draft Day Part I: It Can't Rain At Indian Wells” (season two, episode seventeen; originally aired 3/14/2000)/“Draft Day Part II: The Fall Of Ryan O'Brian” (season two, episode eighteen; originally aired 3/21/2000)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

 I’ve been watching the TNT reality show 72 Hours this summer, a kind of non-serialized Survivor-plus-Amazing Race that plunks down three teams of three members each into a remote wilderness and sends them after a suitcase full of money three days’ trek away. And although I wouldn’t make any claims for it as more than diverting television, it has taught me one very important lesson. Almost every team has a member who is potential dead weight—out of shape, medically compromised, negative attitude. And if that person becomes actual dead weight—demanding frequent stops, complaining they can’t go on, forcing the others to stop and wait while they slowly bring up the rear—another team member ends up assuming the role of Chief Motivator. You know what kind of motivation never, ever works? Tough love. Shaming. Insidious comparisons with other competitors. Pointing out how much the motivator is being inconvenienced. Negative motivation invariably causes the dead weight to dig in his or her heels and whine louder. Encouragement, on the other hand—actual demonstrations of team unity, like pulling the dead weight up a hill or taking on their load—sometimes works. Not always. But a damn sight more often than pointing out how heavy and inert the dead weight is, in the vain hopes that will motivate them to be lighter and livelier.

I thought about those unsuccessful 72 Hours teams during the astounding scene in “Draft Day Part I” where Casey upbraids Dan for moping about the office. He starts with the insidious comparisons to co-workers (“Everybody here would like to be playing golf with David Duval … but more than that, they’d like to be here”) and moves on to pointing out how much he, Casey, is being inconvenienced (“If you’re not here, I can’t use you … I need to be able to do my show”). And I’m not condoning in the least how Dan responds, with a vicious on-air sandbagging of his partner in “Part II” after refusing to accept Casey’s under-fire apology. But boy, do I get it. Negative motivation puts the motivator in a superior position to the motivatee. That might reflect reality—the reason we jump to negative motivation is because we’re certain we’re doing a better job than the other person, making us superior—but in a team situation, it’s deadly. And when the reason for the poor performance is actually unwarranted distinctions between partners (Casey’s ranking on the power list, Casey’s higher salary), then the hierarchy of motivator/motivatee turns explosive. Dan’s motivation becomes putting Casey back in his place, rather than acting for the benefit of the team. And it’s ugly as hell.

This pair of episodes is Sports Night at its serialized finest, with multiple strands of change, conflict, and insecurity all coming to a head during one long day in the studio. It reaches its height on air, with Dan shooting eye-daggers at Casey whenever the camera’s not on him, in scenes that never let the viewer relax for a second. Just look at how Dan fidgets angrily, jerking his head in irritation at the sound of Casey’s voice, glaring down at the desk, even in a shot when the audience perspective is way back behind the studio crew; Josh Charles has Dan so dangerously, tightly wound, that anything could happen. And of all the ways that the doomed “Jeremy dates a porn star” plot could end, what happens in “Part II” has unexpected weight and hits perfect notes of self-doubt and self-absorbed panic from poor Jeremy. He’s caught trying to leap past the process of coming to terms with his own fears and prejudices in order to prove to himself and his girlfriends (past and present) that he’ll get there eventually. And like all such utopian dreams, it crashes to earth in a stunning demonstration of how flawed humans are even when we’re trying our best to be better people.

The best part is that he’s not even sure he should be a better person. He knows it’s what Jenny wants, but he also thinks (and Sorkin’s writing team agrees with him, having Jenny confirm it in her metaphorical fable about how she became a choreoanimator: “I could always draw, and a guy offered me money one time to draw, and so that’s what I do now”) that it’s not okay for a woman to make a living having sex with men on film. In order to have a relationship with her, he has to get to a point where he doesn’t judge her for her work, because that’s what she needs in a world where everybody judges her for her work. But is having a relationship with her worth having to convince himself this work’s not bad for her and bad for any normal relationship of the kind she craves? The resulting contradictions lead to hilarity (badly needed when Casey and Dan have removed themselves from the comedy team) as Jeremy tries to explain his untenable position to anyone in the office who might help, from goading Isaac to fire him (“I think all those people with the different skin colors and the funny accents should go back where they came from and leave America to the white people who killed the Indians in the first place—which they deserved!”) to begging Casey for moral support (“If not now, when? If not me, who?” he psyches himself up for honesty, immediately undermined by Casey’s rational: “Later, and somebody else?”). Josh Malina in a self-engineered tizzy is almost always fantastic television, and this may be the apotheosis of the Sorkin painting-oneself-into-a-corner plots, precisely because there’s so much at stake for how Jeremy thinks of himself.

To top it all off, there are hints that all is not right in Danaland; her typical inability to get everyone on board with mandatory fun (gilding the draft day lily by having t-shirts made at her own expense) is undercut by the bandage covering her nervous skin condition, about which she ineffectually lies to everyone except Casey. I’m glad Natalie is handling her unhappiness about being single in a more-or-less straightforward, healthy manner (“I have a desk, I have an extension, I’m totally unencumbered, any man who wanted to could just have me right now” she announces to the control room after Jeremy ducks out to call his new flame), because almost everyone else is a mess. “Draft Day” puts us down in the muck with them, horrified at how they’re handling themselves but at a loss for how we could do better in the same circumstances. It may not be what you’d give your friends to sell them on Sports Night, but if you’ve been with this show for the long haul, it’s riveting, tragic, and wholly earned.

Stray observations:

  • Connecting the dots, part 1: A couple of character arcs here require the viewers to provide the linkages that make sense of them. Dan broadcasts to anyone in his immediate vicinity his excitement about playing golf with pro David Duval (including a woman at the bar who he prompts to read his phone message: “4 pm Saturday at Alpine, see you in the sandtrap, David Dynel”), but later Dana mentions that they play together three times a year. Why the Hillary-esque level of anticipation? Because Dan’s intimacy with a celebrity golfer is proof, in his mind, that he’s just as important as Casey.
  • Connecting the dots, part 2: The David Duval plotline harkens back to the Tom Waits business in “Dana Get Your Gun” earlier this season—a social engagement with which Dan is loath to let his job interfere. But it also has an inverse relationship to the Gordon-Dana relationship in season one, in which Gordon was constantly frustrated that Dana let her job interfere with his social plans for the two of them, which should hint to us that we can’t be too much on Dan’s side. Casey even has a line of dialogue to jog our memory, although it’s ostensibly about Jeremy’s shadowy line between honesty and deceit: “One need only to think back to Dana and Gordon and Sally and me and Dana and Sally and Gordon.”
  • Connecting the dots, part 3: Why should we care about the fall of Ryan O’Brian from the first round of the draft to the second? Dan is arguing against his own case when he tries to show up Casey by getting him to refer to the player’s loss of income. We should care (1) because caring about Draft Day at all is just an extension of caring about sports, who wins and who loses; and (2) because a human being has been humiliated and is suffering. But Dan undercuts Draft Day itself, and sports by extension, by intimating that there’s no reason to care about where you wind up in somebody else’s ranking. Meanwhile, Dan cares about that power ranking, and he cares about the difference between how much money he makes and how much he could make. And he wants Casey to care that he’s humiliated and is suffering. “Great answer, Casey” is as self-defeating as Jeremy’s revealing plea to Jenny: “I can get used to it.”
  • Jeremy’s recurring bit in “Part II” about civilization slipping away is quotable comedy gold. “Is it important that we say porn star as many times as possible? Can we have a civilization for crying out loud?” he protests to Isaac. “Net game, net game, net game!” he urges the tennis players at Indian Wells to play through the rain; “For the love of God, a little civilization is all I ask!” When Natalie cheerily walks through the office after Jeremy has assured Jenny she’s glued to her seat in the control room during the broadcast: “And there’s no civilization to be found on the planet.” Then when Natalie seems to be buying the choreoanimator story and moving on, an adorable little cheer: “OK, civilization lives!”
  • I have to disagree with Jeremy about Jenny looking good when she shows up in the office. That cropped hoodie and high-waisted blue jeans combo isn’t going to look good on anybody.
  • Thank goodness the end of “Part II” promises us that Dan and Casey’s horrific on-air quarrel won’t last: “Let’s get it back,” Casey urges. “Yeah, okay,” Dan agrees humbly, and then on air: “We’ll be back. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
  • When Peter Krause says to Jeremy (regarding Natalie), “Say a word to her and let the healing process begin so there could be a process of healing that could begin,” he gives it almost the exact same line reading that Jeff Daniels gives so many of Sorkin’s lines on The Newsroom (in a performance that I adore unreservedly, by the way).
  • “How do the real racists do it?” Jeremy wonders after failing to sell his “Sambo” comment to Isaac, in a moment of tremendous clarity for all of us who’ve had our breath taken away by bigotry. (“You got to be taught by your parents,” Isaac observes.)
  • Jeremy: “You like Draft Day, don’t you?” Casey: “To an admittedly psychotic extent, yes.”