“The Cut Man Cometh” (season two, episode eleven; originally aired 1/18/2000)/“The Sweet Smell Of Air” (season two, episode twelve; originally aired 1/25/2000)
Ah, the year 2000. It was a different time. A time when boxing still captured the sporting imagination, and when basic cable networks apparently coveted the bouts that pay-per-view for some reason declined to cover. A time when having “the big fight” on your network was An Event, just as it was in the days of old when I used to watch Howard Cosell reporting from ringside on Wide World Of Sports. But even though boxing has retreated to the calming shores of wherever boxing is shown these days (specialty networks and simulcast-equipped sports bars, I assume), some things remain eerily the same from that long-ago time. Athletes are still trying to get news organizations to cover their branding and businesses instead of, y’know, athletics. The only thing that seems quaint about the Michael Jordan storyline in the second of this week’s episodes is that the news organization ends up passing. But then, the Sorkin version of the news, present and past alike, has always been a fairyland where the choice to act with integrity still exists.
“The Cut Man Cometh” is sheer delight, a confection of an episode with just the right amount of drama for flavoring. I can’t think of a better paced and better edited gag in the show’s run than Casey trying to throw to their substitute color man, Chuck “Cut Man” Kimmel. “Chuck?” he prompts. A blank stare from the face on the monitor. “Chuck?” Casey tries again. Lightning fast take of Natalie in the control room shouting into her headset: “Casey!” Smoothly back to Casey, without missing a beat: “Cut Man?” “Thanks Casey!” the monitor finally responds. It’s so damn good that the episode repeats the sequence two more times (once more with Casey, and then later with Dan) with increasingly hilarious results. But that’s just one element of a snowballing comedy of errors. The pomp accompanying this important event for the network constitutes the set-up, then the ineptitude of the reporter on the scene and the deflating let-down of the seven-second bout create a rich bounty of punchlines.
And that drama? It’s a steel fist in a velvet glove. Dan can’t seem to impress his dad, who keeps muttering about being double-parked while visiting the set, and who seems determined to throw cold water on the prospect of the big fight, even complaining that the ringside tickets Dan got him are too close. Any adult with parents will recognize the cringeworthy accuracy of this exchange, where every request for praise or appreciation, veiled or naked, is met with annoyed skepticism. “Four and a half million isn’t that many, is it?” Jay asks when his son touts the fight’s effect on the network’s viewer numbers. “Don’t the big shows get 20 million?” And then he seizes the chance to drop even that modicum of courtesy, zinging back when Dan lets the request to trade those prized ringside seats goad him into incredulity: “You shouldn’t wear your hair so short. You’re starting to look a little bit gay.” The gap between Dan’s desire to have his dad acknowledge him with pride, to gain a reciprocal acknowledgement of what watching the fights together long ago meant to him, and his dad’s need to protect himself somehow by pretending his son is a disappointment, is achingly real. And as always, Josh Charles plays it flawlessly by creating only tiny cracks where the pain shows through. Dana’s misdirected anger at Casey for making a joke out of her big televised event, as if there would be any other way to respond to such a comical chasm between hype and reality, is equally well observed. And her desperate, needy attempt to take the dating plan back (“If I were to ask you out tonight, would you say yes?”) is a moment so simply framed and presented that the frequent hysteria of the plot arc that it closes almost disappears in memory.
Only just now, as I’m writing, have I realized what the title of ”The Sweet Smell Of Air” refers to: Michael “Air” Jordan’s cologne. Pardon me, his second cologne; in a classic Sports Night joke structure, both Casey and Natalie know Michael already has a cologne (Michael Jordan by Michael Jordan for Men, launched in 1996), and in seperate scenes, express surprise with near-identical lines (“Michael Jordan has a second cologne?”). It’s a bit conveniently naïve, though, that nobody in the office even conceives of the possibility that Michael and his people will have conditions for the interview until they discover the mistakenly-included smoking gun in the press kit. No matter, though, because this storyline intersects triumphantly with The Return of Sam Donovan and with Dana realizing for the first time that Sam might be on the side of the kind of good television she wants to create.
The B-story where Casey considers misdirection to convince Charlie’s classmates that he’s made bread (Dan’s advice: “You sprinkle some flour, you pound some dough, ‘hey, look over there!’, you pull a loaf of Wonder out from under the desk”) is highly enjoyable for the way it makes Casey flail and allows Dan to give extremely serious useless advice. But the heart of this surprisingly pivotal episode is in the way Sam, while doing almost nothing, manages to alter the orbits of Dana, Sally, and finally Isaac. His secret smile after Sally reveals herself to be after Dana’s job by fumbling an attempt to deny any scheming, sleeping-her-way-to-the-top ambition (“This meeting isn’t going that well, is it?” she confesses after painting her way into a corner) is almost a character break, showing not only how much it amuses Sam to see the people around him twist themselves into knots, but how much fun William H. Macy is having with these elegantly constructed scenes. I wish Macy would do more Sorkin; his open, frank face makes the dialogue work like gangbusters. And Dana has her best moment in several episodes when she preemptively tweaks the top of the show so Sam can’t do it for her, then decides that’s just what he wanted her to do and puts it back. “He breezes on in from whatever city he's just breezed out of, and then he, you know, breezes on in …” she complains, so wonderfully certain that the problem is Sam and not her reaction to him.
So never mind that Isaac’s out-of-left-field musings on space squid haven’t aged well. (The Sorkin trope of having characters indulge in amateur futurism always runs that risk.) Never mind that I don’t fully understand why Dan would goad Casey with those comments about liking Sally. (Is there a payoff to that in the next few episodes that I’ve erased from my memory?) There’s the Cut Man, and there’s Jeremy having Ava Gardner ruined for him by Casey’s hyperbole, and there’s Dana thinking she’s gotten the upper hand on Sam with a Taming of the Shrew reference, and above all, there’s Casey recounting with infectious happiness how he called the playground highlights, from interviews to injury reports to a little girl named Phoebe demonstrating jacks. Vintage Sports Night, ageless and evergreen.
- I love the detail in Dan’s memory of watching fights that his dad had beer and he had root beer, both in a mug. That’s exactly the kind of thing that would be important to a kid, turning an occurrence into a tradition, and allowing him to join adult society for a moment.
- Yes, of course the Professor Michael J. Donovan whose treatise on fight preparation Jeremy quotes is a real person. (“Professor” was his nickname.) His obituary in the New York Times asserts that it was during his fight in Boston with John L. Sullivan that the latter was first recognized as something special. He fought in the Civil War under William Tecumseh Sherman, and later taught boxing at the New York Athletic Club for thirty years. Among his pupils was Teddy Roosevelt. You can read his slim 1893 book The Science Of Boxing, Also Rules And Articles On Training, Generalship In The Ring And Kindred Subjects online here.
- Few closing moments in this show make me smile wider than Casey’s shout-out to Jay “who’s sitting and watching his son on television right now, whether he says so or not.” And then Dan breaks the tension with a huge laugh: “For those of you still watching at home, give us a call and tell us why.”
- Sam is such a great character. His canny obliviousness is invariably followed by a pithy line cutting right to the heart of the matter. Exhibit A: “By the way, I met a girl named Suzy today. Sounds like she’s the preferred vacation spot for all the men you date.”
- If called before an elementary school class and asked to exhibit a skill, Jeremy would accelerate the aging process of a pumpkin.
- When Dan mentions the light-heavyweight championship of the world, Casey clarifies: “Dan’s talking about the entire world. Asia … everybody.”
- The wit and wisdom of Chuck “Cut Man” Kimmel: “One of these fighters is gonna win this bout tonight, and the other will almost surely not”; “I hate to correct you on your own show, Casey, but there’s 52 states with Alaska and Rhode Island.”
- Casey: “We are game day players! Like the gladiators of old! … Ow, papercut.” Dan: “You all right?” Casey: “Yeah, I’ll play through it.”