“What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” (season 1 episode 23; originally aired 5/4/1999)
“I’m a lot funnier than you ever gave me credit for being.” Dana says to Gordon—repeats it, actually—as the parting shot to their relationship. The line works as a parting shot to ABC, too, a network that had no shortage of smart sitcoms in the late ’90s (Spin City, Dharma & Greg, The Drew Carey Show, etc.) but couldn’t figure out what to do with the one that wasn’t studio-audience and laugh-track friendly.
The phrase “ahead of its time” gets tossed around far too much. But it’s difficult to find any other way of describing Sports Night, a single-camera comedy that rose and fell just before shows like Malcolm In The Middle, Scrubs, and Curb Your Enthusiasm made the world safe for its kind. Just two years later, and audiences and network execs might have better understood what it was going for. As a rabid fan of the show during its original run, I still feel like uttering Charlie Brown’s plaintive cry after Game 7 of the 1962 World Series: “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?” So close to more Sports Night than the two seasons we got. And yet so far.
“What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” piles one too many sappy layers onto the wrap-party cake, but who can begrudge the moment when Isaac returns, or the tragicomic nervous breakdown that Dana endures until he arrives? The woman just needs a win, and given that she’s coming from deep in the hole, she’s earned all the jubilation of the ninth-inning rally that Jeremy is rooting for.
I love the classic comedy beats of Dana’s unsuccessful attempts to operate her expensive camera setup. “You’re going to hear three beeps, followed by a one-and-a-half second pause, followed by a flash,” she promises the assembled staff (minus Casey who is interviewing Michelle Kwan—who apparently doesn’t like Dan, at least on the evidence of her dissing him at the ESPYs). As she continues manically explaining, Jeremy interrupts: “Can you tell us again what the beeps are going to sound like?” And when the flash fails to go off, Dan mutters through his fixed smile: “Don’t be impatient now; a second and a half is a lot longer than you think.” Naturally, there isn’t a flash until Dana has given up and started toward the camera. The Honeymooners couldn’t have done it better, and it only gets funnier the second time around, when the film falls out of the camera moments before the flash goes off in Dana’s anguish-stricken face.
When she finally explodes under one too many jibes about her photographic incompetence and one too many innocent questions about where her engagement ring has gone, I’m completely on her side. “I have seen enough to know that I have seen enough!” she sputters, and who wouldn’t, with all that’s been heaped on her shoulders and nowhere to dump any of it? She’s had to hold the show together, resist network pressure, try to keep Sally at bay, fend off Natalie’s forthright matchmaking with Casey, deal with Casey’s smug entitlement, and sacrifice justified outrage over Gordon’s infidelity to save that relationship—and it doesn’t even work. No wonder that a couple of yucks at her expense, not to mention the whole office treating her photographic enterprise as a ditzy whim to be indulged, sets her off.
If only there were any other subplot in this episode but the one about Charlie pretending he’s got baseball skills to make his dad happy. Not that this isn’t moving on its own (although good lord, please can it with the saccharine music cues, people!), but jammed into the half-hour before Isaac’s return and culminating in a big speech about how a real dad will never be embarrassed by his son, it’s just too much. I’m going to attribute the rushed way Dan is made to tell Casey about Charlie’s deception to this over-stuffedness; surely, given what Dan knew about how proud Casey was, there is a more elegant way to broach the subject than a quick conversation in the hallway before Casey runs off to berate his son for lying.
But I can’t stay mad at Charlie. The poor kid, constantly worried about disappointing his mom by being late, hoping simultaneously to escape before his dad gets a chance to hand him a shovel and invite him to dig the lie deeper. The blank look on his face when Dan asks him, “What’s a stolen base?” After his first try at honesty (“I can’t play very well”), his insistent, blunt, desperate admission: “I can’t play at all.” Boys and their fathers; the men that they grow up into and their fathers: I know it’s a big thing, and I don’t understand it, but boy howdy, is it ever a knife in my gut when I see how that relationship twists them in knots.
We all need credit for what we do that’s worth something, and we need to be forgiven for what we can’t do that other people might have found more worthy. Gordon might have kept Dana, even if he never mustered up the proper amount of respect for her job, just by finding her a delightful human being. And the energetic roasting Dan and Casey give to Isaac for his extended hospital stay (“I’ve seen gored matadors get up off the floor faster than you”; “You’re a bit of a crumb cake there, aren’t you, pal?”) actually translates into a respectful tip of the cap to a man who had the courage to show up after finding himself involuntarily diminished.
Sorkin has Jeremy paraphrase The Lion In Winter (Toby quotes the same scene in The West Wing’s third season) to the effect that when the fall is all that’s left, it matters very much how a man falls. All that’s left of Sports Night is its second and final season, and its creator’s shift of focus to his more successful next show. But as long as Dan and Casey keep showing up for work, I’m going to keep listening for that crack of the bat and rooting for a rally. We’ll take it one pitch at a time next summer. See you then.
- “The boy can play ball!” enthuses Casey upon reciting Charlie’s stats, as cribbed from Ken Griffey Jr.: three for three with two RBIs, two walks and a stolen base. “I’d think about taking him out of school,” advises Dan. “There’s nothing he can learn in fourth grade that he can’t pick up in a good minor-league farm system.”
- When Casey tells Dan about Dana’s group photograph plan, Dan asks: “Is this part of her psychotic episode?” Assured that it is, he responds, “Well, sign me up!” with a charming lack of irony.
- Hey, It’s 1999!: Holly the nanny appears to be tapping on a Palm Pilot.
- “Sorry don’t make the buttercups shine,” Dan tells Charlie in what I can only imagine is a wholly original mangled folksy saying.
- Funniest moment in the episode, and one of the funniest all season: Casey trying to puzzle out how overnight ring cleaning works as a business model: “Well, how does a ring cleaner carry the kind of insurance premiums to cover…”
- The problem with Dana’s camera is pretty complicated. This is a sophisticated instrument. It’s not any one thing, and it would be difficult to explain to anyone who didn't have at least an intermediate background in photography, but, by and large, it’s that Dana put the film in backward.
- There is surely no better brief explanation of the psychology of a sports fan than Jeremy and Natalie’s exchange about comebacks: “There are 28 teams playing. What we want is for one of them to be getting absolutely humiliated in the late innings.” “Why?” “Because we’re sports fans.” “In a haberdashery.” “Yes.”