Sports Night: “Kafelnikov”/“Shane”
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Sports Night: “Kafelnikov”/“Shane”

“Kafelnikov” (season two, episode five; originally aired 11/2/1999)/“SHane” (season two, episode six; originally aired 12/7/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

Season two wastes no time before throwing curveballs at every member of the Sports Night ensemble. Casey has to deal with the dating plan, Dana is beset by network interference, Isaac might lose his job. Now it’s Dan’s turn, and as with the dating plan, fans of the show (and fans of Dan, of whom I am chief) might feel justified in getting a little testy about what Aaron Sorkin decides to put him through. Everybody gets their own personal wringer on a Sorkin show, but some are more stereotypical and/or arbitrary than others. Network suits trying to squeeze more revenue out of a TV show—that’s an easy conflict to accept. Sending a character to therapy to deal with suddenly urgent personal demons—that’s just messing with him because it’s his turn.

But in my role as defender of widely-derided plot developments, I must point out two things about Dan in therapy:

  1. It does make sense that someone so consciously intent on being the good guy in every situation has some underlying issues that drives this behavior. Playing the white knight is a form of begging to be liked. People who really, really need to be liked, Dr. Freud tells us, derive this insecurity from experiences in childhood where anxiety over obtaining the parental love was not assuaged or resolved. Dan’s particular neurosis happens to manifest in ways mostly benign and sometimes benevolent to the people around him. But that doesn’t mean his single-minded pursuit of the high ground is altogether healthy.

  2. Josh Charles plays the hell out of it.

I’m coming around more and more to the point of view that bad storylines can be rescued by great performances, or even by priceless moments we wouldn’t want to have excised from the work. Natalie’s sound effect for getting women out of the way real fast last week was a small example. This week, it’s Dan’s funny, touching slide from seeking assurance that he does not need therapy, to realizing with increasing desperation that there are things going on in his head that require immediate shrinkage. When Dan introduces himself to Abby (Jayne Brook) in “Kafelnikov,” she replies, “I know who you are.” “Thank you,” he responds, prompting her to ask: “Did I just give you a compliment?” “I assume,” he shoots back blithely. Then Casey shakes his confidence by pointing out first that she’s a doctor “in the area of mental health,” and then that their “date” could be easily interpreted as an appointment, seeing as it is (in Dan’s own words) at “her office… 7:50… I’ll be gone for an hour.” When he actually gets into that office, his eagerness to correct an appalling ignorance about how the profession works is adorable: “I just assumed that someone who needed a therapist would want someone with a full supply of marbles,” he comments upon discovering that Abby is in therapy herself.

And I don’t expect to laugh any harder this season than I did at the last iteration of Dan’s futile, hilariously game attempt to get through the audio recording for the tease in “Shane.” “Let’s roll tape,” Jeremy says after Dan pulls off “Yevgeny” after mangling it (“Yugevny”) thirty times. When Dan stares uncomprehendingly, Jeremy clarifies: “Let’s do it again but this time we’ll record it.” “I saw you hit the button!” Dan protests and Jeremy, unapologetic, demonstrates his move: “Grazed it with my finger.” Dan’s next take, drenched in flop sweat and flailing with desperate, last-ditch energy, as if he could will himself through the ordeal with ever-punchier gesticulations, is a comic masterpiece, full of the contradictions of performance and stripped of the illusion of cool competence.

But there’s no denying the disappointment and discomfort that attends watching such a happy, confident, funny character become convinced that he is horribly broken. It’s as unpleasant as watching Dana dance in front of Casey, frankly, which we can’t help but interpret as cruel, no-stakes flirting, despite the stated context (Dana’s glee at getting a scoop via Shane McArnold’s tone-deaf interview). Did the fall have to be so precipitous? Does it have to be daddy issues? (It always seems to be daddy issues.) And did Sorkin have to steal the whole interrupting-session-with-another-client thing from this episode (which he did not write) to reuse almost exactly in The Newsroom last season (“The Blackout Part 1”)?

If chastened, reflective Dan weren’t just as magnetic as expansive, confident Dan—see No. 2, above—then the excessive punishment inflicted on him (and on us) in this storyline would be a dealbreaker. The silver linings, though, are dazzlingly bright. Casey gets a chance to be strong and helpful, which is especially important given the impotent position in which Dana is putting him (and given the infuriating tendency of the writers to have a scene reinforcing that position in every single episode since; this week’s egregious example is “The longer you wait, the longer you wait”). Dan’s careful attempt to preview his new introspective demeanor so Casey won’t reject him (“There may be periods of time in the conversation when I don’t say anything funny”) is touching on multiple levels. And this may be a matter of personal taste, but one of the Sorkin tropes I like the most is when skilled professionals whose plot function is to provide the blinkered main character with mind-altering context get to also have human reactions and emotions. Like Abby here, whose frustration over Dan’s demands to be fixed boil over in a hand-waving “Pfft! All done!” (“I don’t think you really did anything,” Dan observes helpfully.)

And yet I dread the prospect of being pummelled with more sad Dan (no matter how brilliantly performed), the long stretches of episodes before the dating plan thing comes to a head, and the inevitability of a wringer, currently under construction, for poor Jeremy (whose Y2K testing B-story in “Kafelnikov” is an unadulterated joy). It does give even the most dedicated optimist cause to take a second look at the water level in that glass.

Stray observations:

  • Hypothesis: Season two redirects our focus and our sympathy onto the men in the ensemble, and largely leaves behind the kind of storylines where Dana and Natalie were allowed to grow, experience conflict, and change. I hope that supposition will be exploded by future episodes, but I’m already worried about the role Natalie is going to be forced to play in Jeremy’s upcoming arc. At least here she is adorably and authoritatively referring to Jeremy’s computer experiment as “the KY test.” Meanwhile, will Dana ever face consequences for claiming that she finished the crossword, when Casey gave her every answer?
  • Hypothesis No. 2: The entire Y2K-test storyline is a cruel trick played by writers Matt Tarses and Bill Wrubel to force Josh Malina to say “slave sync signal” three times fast.
  • “Shane” is chock full of callbacks to events from last season, and early last season at that (Dan’s speech about his younger brother from “The Apology” in the previouslies, Dana’s advice to Casey during the McArnold interview to “ask him if he’s seen The Lion King yet”). It’s as if Aaron Sorkin tossed the writers a bunch of tapes and told them to troll for loose threads.
  • It took me until the last act of “Shane” to decide that the drinkin’ and buffet hangout location shown in both episodes is supposed to be a bar, as in a business where the public can purchase beverages and snacks, and not, say, a part of the office temporarily requisitioned for a wrap party. That may be the least convincing bar set I’ve ever seen on television.
  • Ah, the power of the offscreen voiceover. When Casey tries to throw Shane McArnold a rope by suggesting he must be excited about playing in storied Yankee Stadium, there is a beautiful cut back to the control room where Dana and Jeremy wait breathlessly, and from the studio audio we hear a casual, damning “Not really.”
  • The less said about Natalie’s ethical freakout about there not being a literal hell, the better. The whole flimsy plotline is built on a straw man, a clumsy switcheroo. Natalie quotes the pope that hell is a state rather than a place, and then everyone pretends this means there is no hell. (When did states of being lose their status as existants? Call me crazy, but Sorkin wouldn’t write that lazy; he would at least have another character point out the inconsistency, even if the obsessed character dismissed their objections.) However, in the spirit of being grateful that horrible plotlines exist because they produce wonderful moments, I give you Jeremy reassuring nearby tables about Natalie’s bank-robbery outburst: “She’s actually not going to rob a bank. This is just a hypothetical flight of fancy. Continue your late night socializing.”
  • “Sandbags on the levee, plywood on the windows, a little thing called human endeavor!” Jeremy crows as his Y2K test appears to be a success.
  • I’m with Isaac on fearing the future: “I’m managing editor of Sports Night and a hundred years ago I wasn’t allowed to vote. The future’s just fine with me.”
Filed Under: TV, Sports Night

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