Sports Night: “Special Powers”/“When Something Wicked This Way Comes”
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Sports Night: “Special Powers”/“When Something Wicked This Way Comes”

“Special Powers” (season two, episode one; originally aired 10/5/1999)/“When Something Wicked This Way Comes” (season two, episode two; originally aired 10/12/1999)

(Available on Hulu and Amazon.)

Here we are at the crossroads. Sports Night has completed a low-rated but critically-acclaimed first season. Dana has dumped that philandering elitist Gordon, and the mutual regard between herself and Casey is a matter of public knowledge. Robert Guillaume is back on the set and his character Isaac Jaffe is back on the job. Y2K hysteria is reaching a fever pitch. We get one episode to enjoy the moment. And then, the crossroads. Will this season be defined by William H. Macy’s towering turn as Dana’s nemesis? Or by Dana’s infuriating dating plan, in all its joy-killing, cock-blocking idiocy?

One task of a critical rewatch, in circumstances like this, necessarily must be to approach widely hated storylines with an open mind. It’s difficult to do when the storyline seems intentionally designed to deny the viewer joy. In “Special Powers,” after Casey kisses Dana and then returns to the anchor desk, the smile on his face has such blinding wattage that it’s impossible not to feel as giddy. Finally, he’s out of limbo! His torture is over! We can make with the relationship humor and ditch the pining-from-afar business! And then in the very next episode, Dana flips the off switch on happy Casey for six months. Folks, there is a fine line between “flibbertigibbet with control issues” and “bitch,” and I speak from experience, having been accused of crossing that line more than once.

But one reason I have to give Dana the benefit of the doubt and try to find merit in this hugely unpopular move is that it’s way too easy to categorize Sorkin females as bitches, whether you lay that fault at their feet or at their creator’s. Is it possible for a woman to need control, even to go too far in imposing that need on those around her, and still be a multifaceted human being whose responses and actions can illicit sympathy? Rather than a, you know, shrieking-harpy caricature?

If Dana merits redemption, she’d better explain herself well in the “Something Wicked” scene where she proposes the admittedly crazy scheme: “As our first date Saturday night, we postpone our first date for six months while you see other women!” Her reasons are half paternalistic (Casey doesn’t have enough experience to make a meaningful long-term commitment, having married Lisa young and then been scarred by that breakup), half self-preservationist (she’s too old and too tired to mess around in a romance that might not go anywhere). It’s the paternalism angle that rankles, and the self-preservation can’t be untangled from it. It’s possible to recast Dana’s meddling as maternalism, if that doesn’t make the sexual angle weird. If you can see it as Dana clumsily trying to fast-forward Casey from wounded boy into grown-ass man, it’s overbearing, maybe—conniving, definitely—but it’s not a bitch move.

As angry as I am at Dana for jerking Casey around, especially after he tries to give her space (“I was waiting the proper 90 days that I was taught,” he explains with wounded pride when he finds Dana in his office), I’m going to try to see her side of things as this interminable plan plays out. After all, with a season première like “Special Powers” and with Macy’s Sam Donovan appearing in the next episode to shake everybody up, it’s hard to be negative about our prospects. What’s not to love about Jeremy trying to explain why he didn’t want to move to Galveston when Natalie got an on-air offer there? (“It was going to be ranch work for me, okay? Or big game fishing.”) Or about Natalie expertly performing her signature move of refusing to engage in the fight? (“It’s okay if you want to make a little proclamation,” she concedes at the end.)

And I have no desire to resist Dan’s delight at meeting Hillary Clinton. “That Dan Rydell is such a bright young boy, so much more than sports scores and highlights,” he imagines her musing. “I think I’ll make him my gentleman friend.” The subplot about his well-rehearsed yet utterly erroneous position opposing publicly financed secular programs in schools (“Proud day for Dartmouth, Dan,” Casey commiserates) is a classic bit of Sorkinalia, perfectly capturing how overwhelming the thought of someone thinking poorly of us can be. Isaac is back in full form, too, with his reaction to Dana’s outfit for the “themed bachelorette party”: “I just assumed it was hookers.” The buildup to Macy’s appearance also plays as an exemplary standard for all such feared interlopers in the Sorkin oeuvre—not so much the repetitive totting-up of gossip recipients at the episode’s outset (although I do love Jeremy’s wide-eyed “And that’s only counting the people we know who’ve heard the rumor!” at its high point), but the staff meeting where Donovan fails to appear. “This is nice. It’s like quiet time,” Jeremy sums up the moment of calm.

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 during the Donovan arc. Can the fierce protectiveness of her staff offset our incredulous disgust over Dana’s mistreatment of Casey? The battle between Sports Night at its best and worst will be something to watch over the next couple of weeks.

Stray observations:

  • Neil Finn’s “She Will Have Her Way” is a beautiful way to start this season, even set to the rather hackneyed visual of Casey tossing crumpled, rejected versions of notes to Dana on his office floor.
  • I’m with you, Will: Lumber sports terrify me, even tape-delayed. Heck, I have to watch movie wood-chopping scenes through the cracks in my fingers.
  • When Casey and Dan riff on their scriptlessness (“We’re wingin’ the tease tonight, Allison! Flyin’ without a script for 18 seconds!”), fans in October 1999 must have finally relaxed. Sports Night was most definitely back.
  • What I got from the “On the next Sports Night” at the end of “Special Powers”: Felicity Huffman wears a belly-baring leather thing! William H. Macy!
  • Natalie and Jeremy are just fine with consistently coming in third: “It’s not like we’re those clowns in fourth!” Jeremy protests.
  • Hey, It’s 1999! Those are some terrible pleated pants on Josh Charles in “Something Wicked.” On the other hand, I covet both Dana’s white tee/gray skirt combo and Natalie’s empire-waisted black dress from the same episode (seen gorgeously side by side in a walk-and-talk!).
  • You know what? Even if we inescapably conclude that the Dana dating plan is a pestilence and a blight upon season two, I might argue that all its sins are offset by its provision of this line to Natalie: “If there’s a set number of women, maybe you just get ’em out of the way, bing bam boom! That was me getting women out of the way really fast.”
  • My heart melts when Peter Krause smiles and almost breaks character, amused at himself for the fantastic line: “You better not deny it was magical—I took you off your feet, woman! I rocked you back!”
  • “A modest proposal? Make the nets bigger.” (Or a smaller net and no goalie.)

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