When real-life tragedy strikes the cast of a television show—especially a comedy—how does the creative team integrate it into the show’s world? Viewers tune in for laughs, presumably (save for the fad for super-serious “very special episodes” of 1980s sitcoms), so one has to be careful not to wallow in sentiment or give in to dread. When I wrote about “Bill Moves On,” the fifth-season NewsRadio episode dealing with Phil Hartman’s murder, I mentioned being impressed with the simple confidence with which everyone concerned carries on. “What moved me as much as any of the remembrances of Bill McNeal was the way the other characters reappeared, complete and solid, as if their relationships were simply part of the fabric of the universe,” I wrote. “‘Of course we’re back,’ the show seems to say in its unselfconscious process of getting on with season five. ‘Life’s a bitch, but you can count on us.’”
The tragedy that strikes Sports Night happens in mid-production, and isn’t nearly as final, but Robert Guillaume occupies something of a similar place in the ensemble. He’s the consummate professional that holds it all together, even though he isn’t one of the series’ leads. What the show has to deal with isn’t just how to go on without him, but how to handle the uncertainty that his sudden stroke casts over its previous plans. When Dana alternates between bravado and bluffing to handle Isaac’s business and reassure the suits that he’s on the mend and will be back soon, even though she has little basis to make predictions, it’s a window into how the creative team must have felt. Everybody’s holding their breath and hoping that if they act like everything will be all right, then it will. But nobody knows just how much things might have just changed under their feet.
“Eli’s Coming” (season 1, episode 19; originally aired 3/30/1999)
Nevertheless, the episode of television that this team manages to put together in the face of that uncertainty does exactly what “Bill Moves On” does so well: It acknowledges our real-life concern, but doesn’t let that get in the way of making the same television show—funny, smart, and meaningful—to which they have previously committed themselves. The brilliant move here is to move the revelation of Isaac’s stroke to the end of the episode, rather than having the characters respond to it throughout. As a matter of fact, because the revelation happens in the middle of their telecast, nobody gets a chance to have much of a response during the episode. And by “Ordnance Tactics,” we have moved forward several days in time. So the disbelief, the concern, the frantic scrambling and panic, all happen offscreen. What we see instead is the Sports Night crew getting on with their work, because they have to, because that’s their job, and because it’s what their fallen comrade would have done in their place. That’s what the real-life Sports Night crew did, too, and once again I find it much more moving than if the show stopped in its tracks or changed its plumage out of a misguided sense of decorum.
When a bunch of little things start going wrong all at once—Dan finds Steve Sisko in Rebecca’s office, Bobbi Bernstein gets tapped to do NCAA tournament analysis because the regular analyst has “flu-like symptoms” (“Who doesn’t!” Dan exclaims in frustration), and Isaac hasn’t checked in after returning from London—Dan feels the momentum sliding downhill. “There’s a strangeness about this day,” he remarks pensively. “Eli’s coming.” To Dan, the Laura Nyro-penned, Three Dog Night-popularized song being referenced has always been about “something bad, a darkness” approaching (although the lyrics, as Casey points out, clearly refer to an “inveterate womanizer” on the make). And Dan is right; with its dramatic and elongated pronouncement before the rhythm kicks in, this is a song about evil portents. What Aaron Sorkin’s script finds interesting is how the characters respond to the little breakdowns that are taking place all around them.
Casey chooses to pile them up like kindling and blow on the flames until he has an excuse for the big explosion he wants to have with Dana over her dumping the show to Sally in “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” And Dana, clearly expecting the blast from clues such as Casey’s sniping about the cakes women tend to get (“yogurt-frosted lo-cal things laced with a rum-and-fruit concoction that make eating cake into something you do to be polite”), preemptively declares Casey unreasonable in matters such as the wording of Isaac’s “Welcome Back” banner (she predicts he’ll say it’s “too on-the-nose,” but he passive-aggressively declares that “it’s precise… there’s an economy of language”). All the sudden their regular banter in the rundown meeting gets uncomfortably heated with Casey saying “Dana, whatever we’re going to do, can we not do it in front of the help?” and then responding to her request for some understanding by accusing her of putting Gordon before the show and before him: “Later, when there’s time, I’ll see if I could let you off the hook. Right now there’s not time. There’s our show. You’ll let me know if something more important comes up.”
Dan chooses to confront them directly, at least once he has goaded (by means of pointed, extended staring) the women in his life into bringing them up. Rebecca tells him Steve Sisko was in her office because they’re actually not divorced, just separated, and because he wants her to come to counseling as a step toward possibly reconciling. Bobbi Bernstein produces physical evidence that Dan did sleep with her at the Hotel de Espana (“The Hotel de Espana’s in Spain?” he asks, bewildered) back when she looked quite different and called herself Roberta. And then Dan tries to take care of business. “If you wanna work on repairing your marriage, I will, in whatever way you want, support that… really,” he tells Rebecca, and in a little recurring gag that is no less touching for being very sitcom-esque, he repeats the “really” after she kisses him, which in their previous conversation reliably flummoxed him into saying what he actually thought. And to Bobbi he apologizes: “If my not calling you made you feel like any less than what you are, I’m sorry.” There’s a straightforwardness to what Dan attempts here that I find winning; in both cases, he is trying to act on principle, but not rigidly or without attention to context and nuance. He doesn’t date people who are married, but he’s not going to use that personal limit to punish or abandon Rebecca, but to try to be her friend. He doesn’t believe he’s the kind of person who would not call a woman he’s slept with, but faced with the reality that he was that person to Roberta (whom he thought he would never see again), he owns up to his role in hurting Bobbi (who has been professional enough to keep working with him regardless).
Maybe my strong preference for the way Dan handles the onslaught of protents merely signals that I agree with the Aaron Sorkin version of what a “good guy” is: Someone who puts aside the frustrations of other people making mistaken life choices that affect one unfairly, and simply concentrates on behaving according to transparent, publicly-stated principles. But I’m also in sympathy with Dan because Sorkin’s script doesn’t end with Eli being thwarted by Dan taking care of business. Eli still comes, and all of Dan’s mending fences can’t stop it. You can be a good guy and still get screwed. And when that happens, all you can do is keep on with what is still in your power. In this case, and maybe in a lot of cases, that means keeping on with your job.
“Ordnance Tactics” (season 1, episode 20; originally aired 4/6/1999)
Of course, at the very moment you have to keep on with your job, the universe tends to throw everything it’s got at you to make it seem like it’s not worth it. “Ordnance Tactics” is about the roadblocks that we encounter randomly at these moments, and those that we erect ourselves out of a foolish attempt to take control of our own impotence. The episode features even more machine-gun dialogue and sitcom-situation than usual, and the effect is a bit of a scattershot mess delivered at a full sprint. But I can’t help but be charmed by the can-do spirit on display, whether it’s Dan and Casey jointly deciding to “detonate the explosives in an unpopulated area” when they think Natalie and Dana are burying their feelings in work, or whether it’s Natalie perkily refusing to accept Jeremy’s decision to break up with her. With Isaac (and Guillaume) still on the sidelines indefinitely, I’m grateful to the show for making a strong statement about the potential downsides they simply won’t acknowledge. Living up to your responsibilities means not running scared in front of people who think they have the power to terrorize you, be it a religious fanatic phoning in a bomb threat because a CSC talk radio personality does a Jesus impression with a lisp, or a network suit who threatens to bring in interim management if Dana doesn’t give Sally a field promotion.
Or to put it more precisely: If the smart money is on running scared, at least let the wind in your hair bring some clarity to your thinking. That’s what happens after Dana acquiesces to slimy J.J.’s insistence that Dana stop trying to do Isaac’s job and run Sports Night at the same time, and the way she should do that is by letting Sally take over running Sports Night. “I’m having Sally take over a very small number of my functions,” she explains through gritted teeth to the crew at the rundown meeting, and the unspoken corollary is “instead of Natalie, who would be the natural choice to step into my shoes.” Natalie takes Dana’s explanation of the political realities in stride, determined both to avoid adding to Dana’s troubles and to keep the ship of Sports Night sailing forward. Dana’s isn’t the only muddled thinking on display. Dan avoids Rebecca while they’re milling about on the sidewalk during the bomb scare, ostensibly because “I was serpentining!” but actually because he doesn’t know how to keep being around her when she hasn’t decided whether she wants to be with Steve Sisko. Jeremy wants to temporarily stop seeing Natalie because too much is in flux with his parents’ divorce and Isaac’s illness. And Casey reveals that even though he doesn’t respect Sally enough to believe she had nothing to do with pushing Natalie aside, he’s still sleeping with her (“So… just come over?” she asks about their post-West Coast Update rendezvous).
When Dan and Casey decide to invade Dana and Natalie’s strategy session in Isaac’s office to blow the lid off all this unacknowledged tension, their methods are entertaining, but the result is strange, to say the least. After listing all the obstacles in the way of them having a good show, including their friend’s uncertain prognosis, network interference, bomb-wielding nutjobs, and Jeremy’s attempted reversion to celibacy (“Anything else?” Dan asks after the recitation; “We got the satellite feed from Tucson!” Casey replies, and Dan wraps it up: “Then we’re all set! Good show, everybody!”), Dana attributes her and Natalie’s demeanor to their gender. Women, she implies, put their heads down, their blinders on, and do what’s necessary when the craziness explodes around them. By contrast, Dan and Casey say that men give into their fears and thus make themselves stronger. They also provide help and comfort to those blindered women so that the anxiety they’re so determined to tamp down can be somewhat eased. I’m so not even sure of where this abrupt bit of gender theorizing comes from that I prefer to ignore it rather than try to figure it out.
Besides, it’s what comes right after that scene that sends me out on such an upbeat note that I want to forgive all the fast-and-furious tap dancing up to that point. Dana tells Natalie that J.J. can go whistle for it, and further that she approves of Natalie’s way of dealing with Jeremy’s breakup idiocy (“Do not accept it, it is not recognized, it is not valid”). Casey appoints himself emergency fire marshal (“Don’t stand too close to this wall! It’s not real!. If you hear ticking run for your lives! Okay, good show”). And Natalie tells everyone in the studio that Jeremy has no power to define their relationship. “I am his girlfriend, and he’s seen me naked many times,” she announces. “Sometimes I do a little dance.”
Because when everything is going to hell in a hand basket, you’ve got to cling to any little victory you can get. “Pluto’s still a planet,” Casey mentions in the “Sports Night” open, referencing a piece of good news that Natalie has been spreading around all day, and even though the irony is that the astronomers had their way between then and now, demoting Pluto to dwarf planet status, I’m completely in tune with this way of thinking. Sometimes you can’t take just one more affront to the established order of things. Even better, “there was an outpouring of protest” as Natalie tells Jeremy, sticking up for the scrappy little hunk of ice out there beyond Neptune. “Pluto doesn’t know the word quit!” It wasn’t Pluto’s fault that it was going to lose planetary status, anymore than it was Dan and Casey’s fault that somebody called in a bomb threat (“We’re likeable guys!” Casey protests; “I’m liked wherever I go and wherever you go,” Dan agrees), and even though the world is flooded with unfairness, the people rose up and did not allow that one minor instance of highhanded reality redefinition to stand. Maybe if they’ll protest for Pluto, someday they’ll protest for us.
“Eli’s Coming”: A-
“Ordnance Tactics”: B
- Much is made in “Eli’s Coming” of the fact that it’s a Saturday, mostly in the context of Steve Sisko choosing that day to be in Rebecca’s office. It’s a distracting blunder for Sports Night, though, since much is also made of the fact that Sports Night is offering expanded coverage of the Sweet 16, which in actuality takes place on the Thursday and Friday of the second week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. By Saturday, March Madness has moved on to the Elite Eight.
- “There are days that separate the men from the men!” Casey rallies the troops for that aforementioned expanded coverage. “The second men was with a capital ‘M.’”
- Despite asserting that he is fine with Steve Sisko being in Rebecca’s office on a Saturday, Dan makes a Freudian slip on air, asking Bobbi, “How’s Rebecca’s ankle?” before correcting himself: “How’s Rick O’Brien’s ankle?” Later Rebecca shows up on set with an injury update: “Put some ice on it, shot me up with cortisone, I’m good to go!”
- “Are you some nutty nut girl who’s nuts?” is a line that I could watch Josh Charles deliver all day, but nonetheless it’s one of the worst Sorkinisms in the sense of calling attention to itself as writing and being out of place on this particular show. Compare another line immediately following, which Charles also delivers with impeccable panache, but that blends seamlessly into the Sports Night milieu; when Rebecca says that Steve Sisko wants to go to counseling, Dan smoothly agrees while borrowing a phrase from Casey: “Let me tell you something, that guy could use some counseling. He is, among other things, an inveterate womanizer.”
- I don’t think I could love Dan more than I do during this exchange with Rebecca: “He’s such a bad guy, Rebecca. I know that hurts you but I know these things. I’m not that good myself.” “Can I stay here and watch you on TV?” she asks with disarming naïveté. “Yeah, sure,” he responds in kind, with a smile.
- Dan and Casey are very much a comedy team in “Ordnance Tactics,” in complete harmony on their distrust of the safety of their building. “Is this just a herd instinct or did we get the all-clear from someone in authority?” they demand upon re-entering the office, before insisting on meeting the dogs that the authorities used to search the building for that scant hour and twenty minutes.
- Heartbreaking, the hitch in the sentence when Dana tells J.J. that she didn’t actually talk to Isaac: “Isaac couldn’t—he was unable to come to the phone when I called.”
- Jeremy tries to prove in the rundown meeting that he is not seeing Natalie and could go out with other women, despite her insistence to the contrary: “Dana, would you like to go out with me?” “No.” “Why?” “You’re seeing Natalie.”
- “Nothing is the same anymore,” Jeremy half-explains, half-protests. “Many things are the same,” Natalie responds. And I think: Yes. This, exactly.