Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sports Night: “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”/“The Sword Of Orion”

Illustration for article titled Sports Night: “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”/“The Sword Of Orion”

Dan Rydell, creepy stalker? I’m aware that this confession probably invalidates all my enlightened woman bona fides, but it never occurred to me to be skeeved out by Dan’s pursuit of Rebecca before commenters brought it up in great detail last week. The fact that I was insensitive to Rebecca’s “no means no” rights simply proves, I’m sure, that I am the warped product of a patriarchal society teaching me through all avenues of culture that wooing women against their will is romantic, because secretly, down deep, they all want to be conquered.

So dismiss my reaction if you must. But my reaction is that Dan is a sweetheart, and Rebecca, while understandably cautious and reticent, should give him a chance. Contrast this with men who are not sweethearts, who are two-timing manipulators like Gordon (whose neck I wanted to wring this week), and I feel like I can tell the difference between creeps and non-creeps.

Here’s the big caveat: I do understand that the issue isn’t what’s right and wrong in the world of the characters, but the involvement of the puppetmaster who defines their world, Aaron Sorkin, in creating the women whose react in ways that validate these creeps and non-creeps. Rebecca, who doesn’t think she needs to be rescued but actually does. Dana, so needy that she will diminish herself rather than risk driving off a man who treats her shabbily. Both women are constructed in such a way to create problems that male characters can solve by acting in ways that would be contemptible in real life, like refusing to take no for an answer, or intervening in their autonomy. I get this, and it does occasionally bug me, even though my sympathies are mostly with the men trying to figure out how to get their armor on and mount the white horse, rather than with the damsels in various guises of self-induced distress.

“How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 3/9/1999)

The title refers to a song from Finian’s Rainbow about homesickness, and the connection seems to be that Jeremy is composing another of his “Dear Louise” letters home to his sister (as seen previously in “Dear Louise”). He mentions early on that he’ll give Louise the flavor of the Sports Night office goings-on to take her mind off the marital troubles of their parents—troubles that are obsessing Louise enough that she’s considering leaving school. The parental discord will become much more central to the next episode, and that’s part of the design of “Glocca Morra”; it’s more about advancing stories toward a future payoff than crafting a self-contained half-hour of television. But in the case of Dana and Gordon, that advance—or maybe it’s a retreat—is devastating enough that its gravity almost pulls the rest of the swirling pieces into order.

The 11 p.m. show is on a hold because CSC is airing a tennis tournament, and live coverage of an early-round match between No.1 player in the world Pete Sampras and nobody Alberto Fedrigotti is running long because, as almost every character muses at some point, Fedrigotti “just won’t die.” Dana frets about this, due to a dinner date she has with Gordon and (more importantly, it seems) his friends after the show, which is now being pushed back into the indefinite early morning hours. While they hold, Rebecca comes down to visit Dan and needles him about having a phone message slip from Elaine (“Elaine called for you, Casey!” Dan sings out without missing a beat), and we discover they’ve been out on a couple of dates but by no means can be considered a firm item yet.


But the big story is whether Dana will be able to do her job under increasing pressure from Gordon, who shows up in the middle of a heated game of garbage-can basketball, turning Dana the fierce competitor and trash-talker into Dana the simpering doormat. The closer it gets to 2:00 a.m., the more likely it is that Sports Night will get folded into West Coast Update and Sally can take over in the producer’s chair. Dana describes it as the very last resort; Casey asserts: “I’ve known Dana for 15 years, she’s not dumping the show.” Gordon, however, is not above using every trick in his slimy book to get her to bail on her job. We’ve seen his a-monkey-could-do-your-job tack before (arguing that Natalie can fill in, Gordon asks: “At this point isn’t it calling it numbers from a script?,” to which Jeremy replies with pointed inaccuracy: “You produce a lot of live television at the district attorney’s office?”). Gordon has bigger ammunition this time, though. “I need you to give me something,” he instructs Dana, the latest salvo in an ugly war between his need to be the only partner with anything important to do and Dana’s actual life.

Upset about the way Dana’s being treated, Casey abruptly gives in to Dan’s insistence that they talk about whatever’s bothering him, which is, of course, that Gordon was wearing Casey’s shirt. “I understand why a woman would think any man’s better than nothing; I just don’t understand why a woman would think she’s got nothing,” he muses, and that’s as good of a manifesto for Sorkin’s unfortunately needy female characters as any. It’s not just that Dana has herself, and that this should at least be enough to keep her from the kind of despair that causes a person to cling to the Gordons of the world. She has Casey, too. And through the looking glass is Dan’s budding romance with Rebecca, who, invited to visit the set and observe the show, bubbles over with winning enthusiasm. “Hard not to like her,” Casey says appreciatively; “Tell me about it,” Dan replies. He means it; the takeaway message from the Dana-Gordon-Casey love triangle, for Dan, is that you should never take that connection for granted, or play on it for unearned gain. “Bec? Can I call you Bec?” he interjects casually when inviting her to stick around for the show. “Nope!” she responds. “Rebecca’s fine,” Dan recovers smoothly, before insisting to her, apropos of nothing she knows about, “I’d never make a fool out of you.” And back in a world where men making fools of women is de rigueur, Casey has to watch, seething, while Gordon paternalistically puts his coat around Dana’s shoulders while guiding her out of her element, and to his friends whose opinion is apparently so all-fired important.


“The Sword Of Orion” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 3/23/1999)

Gordon’s reprehensible emotional blackmail, and Dana’s inability to resist it even though her principles tell her otherwise, forms a strong center to “Glocca Morra,” which otherwise has little shape. It’s possible to like that kind of storytelling better than the kind on display in “The Sword Of Orion,” which is dominated by two quixotic quests running throughout the episode. In the most blatantly symbolic one, Jeremy’s research on a yacht that mysteriously and fatally wandered off course during a Governor’s Cup race becomes a search for the reasons his parents are getting divorced. Your reaction to “The Sword Of Orion” may depend on your tolerance for this sort of thing; personally, I find it quite affecting, especially in the hands of a character like Jeremy who keeps the dialogue mostly about the inexplicable details of the case and only rarely about its allegorical resonance.


The other quest is Dan’s excitement about the return of Orioles pitcher Orlando Rojas to the big leagues, and his pitch to Rebecca to watch the game with him after Sports Night.  She illustrates her refusal with her ignorance of whether a perfect game is a good thing, which really gets Dan going; to his bewilderment about how she could have been married to Steve Sisko for years and not picked up any information about sports, she retorts: “Do you think Neil Armstrong’s wife is an expert in astro-propulsion?” “I think she’s heard of the moon,” Dan shoots back facetiously. In one of the episode’s best scenes, set in Rebecca’s office, Dan explains without a trace of embarrassment that not only is the game he wants her to watch not some kind of championship, but the season hasn’t even started yet; it’s an exhibition. His interest in the contest is purely in terms of Rojas’] personal story: “If Orlando Rojas can put some innings together he may not get cut from the team as quickly as most people think he’s gonna… There’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet. Usually goes the other way.”

Dan’s desire to watch the game with Rebecca is part of a larger quest, however. He believes that she has erected “a wall of pain… a wall whose bricks are made of pain and whose mortar is made of tears” (and whose third thing that he can’t remember is made of something else) to shut out the horror of the Steve Sisko years. As he announces to an elevator full of bemused co-workers, “I’m going to tear it down, for I am Dan, doer of good things where women are concerned!” His pitch certainly continues past all reason, and includes the revelation that he’s now on friendly terms with everyone who works on Rebecca’s floor (a development that many of you find prima facie evidence of Dan’s stalkerhood), but he does finally back down when she insists for the zillionth time that the game is a no-go. “I’m not discouraged,” he reports with a bit of wounded bravado, now talking about the general Dan-Rebecca relationship and not the Rojas game. “I am Dan.”


Back in less comedic plotlines, Natalie is upset that Jeremy returned from his trip without calling her often enough or appreciating the red carpet she’s prepared (“It says ‘Welcome Back’ in big letters and there’s a drawing of me holding a sign that says ‘Welcome Back’”). The knock that this situation deserves is that Natalie focuses so exclusively on whether she’s getting her due from Jeremy as opposed to how Jeremy actually feels, but this is a red herring, I think. She’s actually worried about Jeremy, but filtering that concern through specific troubling behaviors, most of which happen to be centered on minor details of their relationship, is the way she expresses it. Jeremy, on the other hand, is dealing with his powerlessness and confusion the only way he knows how: Research. “I need the right charts, and I’m confident that I can learn how to read them,” he tells the group at the rundown meeting when pitching the yacht story. Then later, when trying to parse various literary and astronomical reference in the yacht’s name, The Sword Of Orion, he abruptly admits to Casey: “My father’s been having an affair with a woman for 27 years.”

Maybe the reason I find Jeremy’s storyline compelling, rather than an off-puttingly precious attempt at pathos, is this very real mystery of a person who turns out to have been somebody else for decades, somebody you completely missed. We’ve all had enough first-hand experience with this, in small or large ways, to identify with the way Jeremy needs to arrange the available evidence in search of answers. “It’s worth it, I think, to figure out exactly how this boat that was supposed to win met with this kind of disaster,” he says, obliquely asking for permission to continue his investigation. And then, naked and almost heartbreaking: “I’d like to look at a chart.”


We know Jeremy’s quest won’t give him the answers he needs, but we’re moved—I am, at least—by the way he’s trying to come to terms with the inexplicable. Yet the episode doesn’t leave us there. In a beautiful coda, after Dan has managed to avoid hearing anything about Orlando Rojas’ pitching performance during the entire day and throughout a sports-news program on which he is the anchor (culminating in this probably unnecessary general announcement: “I am now walking through the newsroom carrying the tape. Please stop all conversations concerning Orlando Rojas and the Orioles game”), Rebecca finally meets Dan where he lives. “It’s hard because…” she hesitates. “The wall of pain with the bricks and the tears,” Dan prompts; “And the third thing, yeah,” she agrees. By saying so, she endorses his quest; “I’m hunkerin’ down for a long period of wall demolition,” he half-promises, half-warns her. Then she invites him to a hotel room with champagne on ice. “That’ll speed things up considerably,” he comments, taken off guard to have the offense taken away from him.

But she’s not done. “Take the tape,” she instructs him. And at that point I don’t care how messed up the sexual politics of the show and this relationship might be. Josh Charles’ astounded smile, the way he says “Excellent,” and the promise of their walk through the office (past the editing room where Natalie and Casey are listening to Jeremy), are simply incandescent. The writing here hasn’t vindicated Dan for his knight-errant approach to romance. It’s given him a gift. And I’m happy for him not because the show has endorsed his methods, but because he’s a character I care deeply about, and his joy is infectious.


Because there’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet.


“How Are Things In Glocca Mora?”: B+

“The Sword Of Orion”: A-

Stray observations:

  • No post next week due to some traveling and vacating we have planned. Look for episodes 19-20 on August 15, episodes 21-22 on August 22, and the final episode for this summer (along with a first season wrap-up) on August 29.
  • The tennis footage in “Glocca Morra” is Pete Sampras’ match against Paul Goldstein in the 1998 U.S. Open; Goldstein, who only turned pro a few months earlier, managed to take Sampras to four sets. (Both are given special thanks in the credits.) Goldstein is from Rockville, Maryland, and given that the Orioles figure so prominently in “Orion,” one has to wonder if Baltimore native and rabid hometown sports fan Josh Charles had anything to do with the choice.
  • Natalie is pretty sure that Pete Sampras will beat Fedrigotti on time as a personal favor, since “Pete Sampras has a little crush on me.” “In Natalie World or real life?” Jeremy wonders. “In Natalie World!” she explains brightly.
  • Casey remarks at length on the lack of provolone on the craft services table: “This is big-time television. Guy puts out swiss cheese and nothing else.”
  • After Dan learns about Gordon and Sally’s dalliance, he breezes aggressively into the conference room where Sally is hovering watching the tennis match, ready to take over the show, and shouts, “Sally, you must have slept with this guy, how long do you think he can keep this up?”
  • Casey trots out the phrase “Five minutes to air” (“Best words in the English language!”) in several languages during the cold open of “Orion,” then spends the rest of the show informing random passersby of his stellar qualities. “The thing about me is I’m well rounded, I speak many languages, I like to juggle, play a little piano,” he mentions offhandedly before the rundown meeting. “I’ll tell you something else, I can cook. Not everything, but spaghetti I’m very good at. Cupcakes,” he tells the makeup woman while Dan is avoiding Rojas news with earplugs and averted eyes. And most winningly, inaugurating a line I remember quoting very fondly from the initial airing of the show: “This is the second time today I’ve been kicked out of a room, and I go pleasantly and without incident.”
  • Dan claims that he has become friends with everyone on Rebecca’s floor because he has “a way” about him, one of many times he claims charismatic power that Rebecca will be unable to resist. After he condescendingly informs her that the name of the Baltimore baseball club refers to a kind of bird, she snaps, “There’s nothing about you I don’t hate.” “And yet you are mysteriously drawn to me,” he parries without breaking a sweat.
  • When Dan tells the crew to “establish a signal they can give [him] when approaching danger,” he demonstrates by making a big “X” with his arms.
  • Yes, people have tried to kill Dan, but he defends himself with his superior wit and guile.