Sports Night: “The Quality Of Mercy At 29K”/“Shoe Money Tonight”
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Sports Night: “The Quality Of Mercy At 29K”/“Shoe Money Tonight”

The family is the basic unit of almost every television series, because the family is a site where people undergo individual arcs of experience within a shared survival effort. Shows set in the workplace feature colleagues as surrogate families, but the dynamic in the same: Characters bring their separate problems, challenges, and conflicts, and play out their implications within a team focused on a common task. And sometimes that task involves waiting for something to happen—a situation that conveniently structures the episode’s allotted time into three acts. Tell us what we’re waiting for. Wait for it. And then it happens, or doesn’t; either way, the waiting is over.

“The Quality Of Mercy At 29K” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 12/1/1998)

In “The Quality Of Mercy,” the event for which our characters are waiting is the conquest of Everest by a team of climbers that the network has been following and featuring. It’s supposed to happen in the wee hours of the morning, after Casey and Dan’s regular gig, and they’re going to host CSC’s live coverage. In act two, while we’re waiting for it to happen, there are complications; the team stops short of the summit. Nobody knows if it’s going to happen. The story structure of waiting allows for this very basic kind of suspense. At its purest, there’s nothing the characters can do to affect whether it will happen or not. Fans at a game, relatives in the hospital waiting room, defendants while the jury is out—all of them hold their breath. It’s out of their hands now, and all that remains is the outcome.

While they wait, Dan tries to figure out which charitable enterprise will get his donation. Too many groups send him solicitations, and setting priorities inevitably involves privileging one kind of good over another. Casey thinks it’s easy to sideline the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra in favor of medical research, but Dan wonders “what’s wrong with music and why shouldn’t Montgomery have some?” Natalie mentions that she sends a few dollars to an AIDS charity when she can, but Dan questions the high profile of AIDS among diseases: “If I’m dying of leukemia, I might well wonder where my red ribbon is? Why doesn’t somebody throw me a pajama party at Barbara’s?”

The fact that Dan has money to share, though, regardless of where he decides to bestow it, counts as something of a miracle (as Natalie pointedly reminds him when he asks her for advice: “I’ve got some extra money and I don’t know what to do with it,” Dan explains, and Natalie responds: “Wow, that must really suck”). From a certain vantage point of privilege, the power of human beings to overcome their natural limits appears all around. People with enough leisure and money can make expressive art, like the Broadway show that wrests Dana out of her belief that “the singing and the dancing and there’s oftentimes a hoedown” aren’t for her. “Thank you,” she effuses to Isaac, “for opening my eyes to possibilities that would have gone unexplored in a life that, while heretofore—” And we can fill in the rest; she was perfectly happy not knowing that theater can be transporting, but now her world has expanded, and she’s eager to fill that new space with other experiences that don’t strictly relate to basic survival needs. 

Amid all these non-essentials, the “not fit for man nor beast” winter weather has driven homeless people into the building to seek shelter, and one of them makes his way up to the office, where Dan finds him. Isaac, in response to Dan’s earlier query, mentions that he gives to street people without worrying about whether the money will be used for food, booze, or whatever: “As I step over ’em, I reach into my pocket and give ’em whatever I’ve got.” Now Dan offers the man half a turkey sandwich he was going to share with Casey, and they sit down together to watch the climber reach the summit. “Look what we can do,” Dan says.

This theme—humans doing difficult and unnecessary things like climbing mountains and making art, putting in perspective the problems that seem insurmountable—is nothing if not tricky. You can pick it apart by pulling on any of a dozen dangling threads, including the privileged perspective I mentioned above. The sandwich that Dan gives to the homeless guy lies on the opposite end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the matinee tickets Isaac gives Dana (because she’s too ignorant to know such shows sell out) and the permission the gods give to the climbers who approach their domain. I could criticize “The Quality Of Mercy At 29K” for suggesting some kind of equivalence by suggesting that those who have nothing might respond to the same spiritual aspirations of the human race as those who have so much that they can do useless things like put on television shows about sports.

But it works. Sorkin and his co-writer Bill Wrubel let the critique show through the threadbare places in their conception. Dana goes to see a Disney show with all the unpleasant stink of synergy that brings, but her enthusiasm isn’t so much about The Lion King as it is about putting yourself in the hands of artists to be lifted out of your everyday experience. Even Natalie and Jeremy finding it impossible to be professional at work due to the blush of new love expresses an overflow of human capacity in situations of pure practicality. And Dan’s reaction to the homeless man has a kind of reality that disarms my objections, especially when he startles at the switchblade. Sorkin is a humanist. When Jeremy says “The gods can stick it… We’re citizens of this planet; I don’t think anyone should tell us how high we can climb,” that’s Sorkin asking us to let this story give us the gift of possibilities, too. 

“Shoe Money Tonight” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 12/8/1998)

More waiting, but this time the driving force isn’t suspense about what will happen but casual delight in what people do while stuck together passing the time. Dan and Casey can’t go to Atlantic City to play blackjack as planned because the regular hosts of the West Coast update are stuck in Pittsburgh due to snowy weather. So they get a poker game going during the couple of hours between the end of Dana’s flagship edition of Sports Night and Sally Sasser’s second-string late edition. To that poker table Dana brings her annoyance with Sally’s ambition and Casey’s appreciation of Sally’s charms (which she describes with gestures indicating tall, boobs, ass—“Sally? You know, Sally?”) and her delight in making fun of Isaac for being worried about shrinking. Natalie accepts the poker challenge to put Jeremy in his place for playing tennis with an actress friend. Dan spends the game lamenting his lost gambling mojo (“There was a time he was in the zone,” Casey explains; “It was beautiful,” Dan elaborates). And Jeremy is just trying to negotiate the tricky waters of relationship rules—who has first claim on your time, when do you assert yourself and when do you give way, how do you maintain what George Costanza called “hand”—through a contest that is in no way equally matched and with an opponent/partner who is both deluded about her own chances and correct in believing she has an ace up her sleeve.

“The Quality Of Mercy” shows what Sorkin can do when there’s a big, delicate theme to be put across. “Shoe Money Tonight” is the flip side of his talent; stakes both for the characters and for the episode are low, and the audience’s involvement is in the pure delight of spending time around these characters, watching them interact, listening to them talk. Jeremy and Natalie’s little relationship drama is wonderful artifice, with both posturing for each other and a breathless crowd of onlookers in the office. Dan counsels that Jeremy has to be firm with Natalie on his right to control access to previous friends and mastery of his time (“A man’s past is more important to him than his future,” he pontificates vaguely), and then when Jeremy has a showdown with Natalie over the final hand, Dan interjects: “Stand tough, Jeremy.” That little bit of business—a brief back and forth, ending with Dan explaining “he’s my boy” and Jeremy reasserting his independence: “Yeah, but it’s all right”—brilliantly breaks the tension and allows us to remember that this is all for show, that Jeremy and Natalie are acting out parts and jockeying for position. The release of tension a few minutes later when Natalie pulls out her trump card, the mental image of her wearing one of Jeremy’s dress shirts (“I was never even in it!” Jeremy exclaims) is like the big reveal in a magic trick, where we laugh and clap in relief that nobody was ever in any real danger.

Dana’s conflict with Sally has similar outlines of bluffing and telling. Sally is only as much of a threat as Dana allows her to be; she has no power, but her constant naked ambition and flirtation with Casey get under Dana’s skin. Casey knows that, and is perfectly willing to goad Dana’s discomfort by appreciating what Sally brings to the table (“It’s hard not to notice that the woman’s body was put together by a technician very close to God… not God himself, but a high-level staff person, senior VP”). But Dana reminds Casey that just because she doesn’t usually show her cards—her intimate knowledge of how Casey likes to do the show—doesn’t mean she isn’t holding the upper hand. Tables turned; he’s at her mercy, and he’s got skin in the game, instead of watching in amusement as the two women contest for his favor.

Maybe the best thing about “Shoe Money Tonight,” the very best aspect of a nearly perfect episode, is Natalie. She gets to assert herself, and even though it’s all bluster and aggro with nothing to back it up, it’s electrifying. When Jeremy questions her expertise at poker, she dares him to meet her at the table: “Or are you just afraid that I might humiliate you and you won’t be able to go to Sundance with Judy the ho?” When Jeremy calmly reads her hand as trip sevens, she shoots back: “How do you know I don’t have a big house?” I love the way Sabrina Lloyd plays this, completely confident as someone would need to be both in warning her new man to put her first and in making a stand at the poker table, not a hint of pathetic girliness or anxiety. Pair that with Jeremy’s reluctant firmness, his “I don’t want to show you up in front of everybody, but you are outmatched” tone, and who cares if nothing whatsoever is really at stake? It may be as fixed a game as professional wrestling, but that makes great television, too.

Ten weeks into his first television show, Aaron Sorkin finally seems to be completely comfortable with his writing for this medium. Not that everything works; by no means. But Sorkin appears to be equally invested in the stylistic quirks that he uses to tell the story, and in the stories that he’s telling. In terms of both message and method, he’s all in.

Grades: “The Quality Of Mercy At 29K,” B+; “Shoe Money Tonight,” A

Stray observations:

  • No post next week, due to a family vacation and the July 4 holiday. I will be back on July 11 with “The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee” and “Smoky.”
  • Isaac’s low-key amusement at Dana’s initial disdain, and then over-the-top enthusiasm, for The Lion King (“Why don’t you organize your thoughts and get back to us?” he suggests when Dana tries to describe her wonder) is enhanced by Robert Guillaume’s real-life connection to the production, as the voice of the mandrill Rafiki in the film original.
  • I find the Everest expedition premise for “The Quality Of Mercy At 29K” curious in that Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s massively bestselling account of what Everest is like these days (multiple expeditions on the mountain at once, traffic jams at the summit, relatively inexperienced climbers being hauled up the ice by professionals, competing expedition businesses under pressure to give their clients the experience they paid for) came out in ’97. Sorkin’s man-versus-nature storyline, as well as the idea that an Everest climb would be newsworthy unless it were disastrous, is a bit of an anachronism.
  • Peter Krause has one of his best moments in the series so far with his offhand contention that he sympathizes with the lack of toeholds on the ice sheet because there’s a climbing wall at his gym that “simulates a Class 3 mountain.” “I hold in my heart what few men possess: the spirit of the hill,” he rhapsodizes, then when pressed for details, can’t come up with anything but “There’s a hill… a spirit…”
  • When Isaac talks about his commute (in the context of his privileged home and job in contrast to the homeless people he passes), he mentions that the job is in a 54-story high-rise. That seems to indicate that the CSC offices are not in fact in the World Trade Center, as some commenters speculated the first week vis-a-vis the establishing shots of the WTC over the credits.
  • Hey, It’s 1998!: Both Casey and Dan are wearing ties with horizontal stripes in “Shoe Money Tonight.” The office game of choice appears to be five-card stud, since this episode predates the poker-boom ascendance of Texas hold ’em.
  • Brenda Strong as Sally surely represents the perfect marriage of part and casting; she’s got both the chutzpah and the freakishly oversized physical presence to pull it off perfectly.
  • At the end of the broadcast in “Shoe Money Tonight,” we find out that Dan has a Mrs. Calabash-style signoff: “Good night, Mom.”
  • Dana has more poker patter than just “shoe money tonight!” As the end credits come up, she starts dealing the cards and discoursing about their nicknames, including “eight of hearts which is also known as the eight of hearts.”
  • Dan realizes he’s out of the zone when he misses the “alley-oop pass” from Casey on the expression “money won is twice as sweet as money earned” (Casey: “I was there for the putback”). “I’m down here with the rest of you!” he cries, bereft.
  • Casey: “‘Temp gig?’” Dan: “Temporary gig.”

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