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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sports Night: “Ten Wickets”/“Napoleon’s Battle Plan”

Illustration for article titled Sports Night: “Ten Wickets”/“Napoleon’s Battle Plan”

We’re down to the penultimate post in this summer’s review series; next week’s installment will cover the final episode of the first season, then we’ll take a break until next summer. And I’m a little dissatisfied with where we’ve ended up. The serialized story arc of Dana, Casey, and Gordon’s love triangle has completely taken over the show, at the expense of some of the beautiful, haunting, and very funny themes that dominated the best half-hours of the first season: “Thespis,” “Shoe Money Tonight,” “The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee,” and “The Sword Of Orion.” Despite the presence of material related to, and advancing, longer plotlines in those episodes, there is a commitment to making self-contained installments that reserved their most meaningful commentary for the stories of the moment, rather than the bigger picture.

The way Casey’s mopey, passive affection for Dana sprawls all over this week’s episodes has me nostalgic for earlier in the season, when the show wasn’t in the business of positioning us on the edge of a cliff and building anticipation for a finale. But the bigger problem with both these half-hours is their muddled portrayal of what Casey ought to do about the situation where he finds himself.

“Ten Wickets” (season 1, episode 21; originally aired 4/13/1999)

Casey’s still stewing over the bomb scare from “Eli’s Coming” as this installment opens, and he’s acting out his anger over the right-wing religious zealot who perpetrated it by ridiculing Jerry Falwell on the air. This petulance contrasts with Dan’s excitement about Rebecca being back from her trip, in celebration of which he has visited a Chinatown store called Dang Luck and purchased an antique abacus as a gift. Dan has “moved on” from the bomb incident, and refuses to share Casey’s outrage that religious leaders aren’t condemning the threat. “The absence of admonishment from the church is totally bizarre!” Casey fumes, and Dan agrees before admitting that he’s just preoccupied with his own “Mr. Happy Guy” perspective on life. “I can fake my enthusiasm and you'll never know the difference,” he promises.

I have very little sympathy for Casey in this situation, and enormous empathy for Dan. It’s realistic in a way, but completely unfair in another, that the former is part of the romantic relationship in which the show has asked us to invest most of our energy, and the latter is about to have his dreams kicked out from under him with quiet finality. Realistic, because I do understand why Casey is so annoyingly defiant, choosing this issue to which to take personal affront while feeling he is blocked from being affronted by Dana’s ongoing unhealthy relationship. I find it infuriating, but it does make sense for this character in this situation. Unfair, because Dan un-complicates his relationship to the best of his ability, commits himself to forthrightness and eschews game-playing (“Honesty and directness are what’s required. I love her, and it’s that simple. Honesty will win the day. Thank you”), and then has his opening for love wither away before he has the chance to fight for it.

In twinned scenes of revelation, our two lovelorn anchors find out what they’re up against. Dana seeks Casey out to apologize to him for threatening to suspend him for one more Falwell joke (“That was a very big gun to pull out, and I’m sorry”) and for dumping the show to Sally, and Casey, touchingly, reciprocates by apologizing himself (as well he should): “I’m sorry I’ve been testing your authority—you’re the boss.” Then Dana tells Casey that Gordon asked her to marry him. For Casey, that’s a cliffhanger (“What are you going to say?”), but for Dana, that’s a resolution (“What, are you kidding? I’m going to say yes”).


Much more affectingly, because I am much more in tune with the way Dan wears his heart on his sleeve, Rebecca shows up before the show and tries to delay the inevitable by giving Dan a hot tip that she heard on her flight: Barry Bonds is the key to the imminent success of the San Francisco Giants. (Dan: “Unfortunately, the rules prohibit Barry Bonds from batting before and after himself and he probably can’t play right field and pitch at the same time.”) Then he reads the tea leaves: “Uh oh.” Rebecca makes it official; she’s back together with Steve Sisko. In fact, he’s waiting for her downstairs. Dan couldn’t be more kind to her, cutting her off before she says anything about what he means to her, helping her close the door on this episode of her life. “Really, it was my pleasure,” he assures her with simple sincerity when she thanks him. Dan Rydell, ladies and gentlemen. The classiest of class acts, even as his heart is breaking.

In the epilogue, Jeremy comes to his senses and reunites with Natalie, though he still insists that he has the power to “decree” that they’re back together having broken up. Dan drowns his sorrows, and Casey tells everyone what he knows (not before briefly blaming Natalie for not telling him). They toast Chauncey St. John of New Delhi (or as Natalie earlier called him, “New Guinea’s Mr. Chutney St. Joan”) for taking all ten wickets in an innings; even though Jeremy has not been able to figure out what that means, he makes sure everyone understands that it’s an extraordinary athletic feat. And then Natalie suggests to Casey that the bell has not yet rung, the fight is not yet over, and Casey need not cede Dana to Gordon until he’s well and truly beaten.


“Napoleon’s Battle Plan” (season 1, episode 22, originally aired 4/27/1999)

“We’re going to need a plan,” Casey says at the end of “Ten Wickets,” apparently accepting Natalie’s contention that he should continue to pursue Dana despite her engagement. Yet when Dan and Casey are pants-lessly preparing for the show, Casey has not yet come up with a plan except for the titular, two-part Napoleonic one: “First we show up, then we see what happens.” This leads Dan to assert that it might be time for him to step in, news that Casey receives with apparent regret. The action Dan is urging is for Casey to tell Dana about Gordon’s infidelity, which Casey believes isn’t manly (“then do it in a deep voice,” Dan retorts, exasperated). I see Casey’s point; it smacks of sour grapes, of a rear-guard action, if it is a way for Casey to get what he wants. But for Dan, it is first and foremost a way to give Dana what she is owed: full disclosure.


Dana, for her part, betrays her anxiety by obsessing over high-end cameras in a catalog and loudly mulling, to anyone who will listen, a purchase of the Soshi/Suntac RTS III with center-spot metering, AP and SP exposure modes, auto bracketing, a five FPS motor drive, and a Polaris digital exposure meter that’s a steal at twice the price. Not that she knows anything about cameras, including what any of those features mean, but she feels she owes it to herself. Dan takes matters into his own hands in the conference room where Natalie is rearranging show segments. He tells her that not everyone will agree with what he’s about to do, but he believes it’s right: “I believe it in my guts, and my guts are all I have. My guts and a pleasing personality.” And then he spills the beans about Gordon and Sally, and Natalie goes running to Dana without a second thought.

Now it’s possible that Dan is being a bit more disingenuous here than he gives himself and his guts credit for. Why does he tell Natalie? Because he’s sure that Natalie will tell Dana, and yet he is not directly responsible in this scenario for Dana being told. I’m sure he would prefer to see it this way: Dan doesn’t have standing to approach Dana. It’s none of his business. But nevertheless, he has information that he has a responsibility to pass along. It may not be the “high road” that Casey occupies along with Napoleon, waving at Dan and boasting “I can barely hear you up here.”


Yet it gets the ball rolling and, most importantly for Dana and us, provides an opportunity for Gordon to underwhelm at explaining and apologizing when Dana confronts him with the charge before the dessert course. First he accuses Casey of telling Dana (implying Casey’s feelings as the ulterior motive). Then he excuses himself with: “It happened during our really bad time. I thought we were through, I really did.” And when Dana zeroes in on the Casey comment, Ted McGinley gets what might be his finest moment in a legendary (in its way) career in television: “This part is funny, actually,” he claims, before telling the story about Casey’s shirt, and then insisting: “It would never, ever happen when we were married.”

Even better than this low-key scene of tension at the restaurant is the rather high-key scene that follows, where Dana asks Sally flat-out, “Did you sleep with my fiancé and then with my anchor?” I like this scene for the roller-coaster of emotions on which it takes Dana. For a man whose skills writing women are often called into question, Aaron Sorkin shows a real understanding of how Dana’s righteousness crumbles when it becomes clear to her that she’s interpreting the behavior of Sally Sasser, a person who owes Dana nothing special except the professional courtesy of a colleague, as an attack, instead of doing the harder work of dealing with the men who actually betrayed her trust.


And then, a couple of scenes later, when Dan tells Casey that “people not knowing about you and Sally—that’s a thing of the past, and I think we have to live in the now,” Casey’s vitriolic line “You’re a woman, you know that? I’m gonna stick you under a hair dryer!” explodes all my good will into little pieces. So often I can’t think of a good reason, either in terms of character or story or overarching theme, to go to that well and hurl gendered accusations or tender gendered explanations. Here’s another inexplicable one, and it takes me out of the scene entirely as I try to puzzle out what the hell Casey is talking about.

“Napoleon’s Battle Plan” ends on a strong note, with the trouser-free anchors getting ready to go on camera and Dana making the dispute between her and Casey into the business of the entire crew (“You’ll have to do the first segment without your pants; Casey, you should feel right at home”). But humorous as it is, the recurring image of Dan and Casey fully clad from the waist up and sporting nothing between their boxers (or boxer briefs, in Dan’s case) and socks from the waist down is not enough to pull this episode together or give it the kind of focus Sports Night can manage when it isn’t in season-ending Stratego mode.

“Ten Wickets”: B+
“Napoleon’s Battle Plan”: B-

Stray observations:

  • Jeremy’s attempt to translate the news report about the cricket match is one of the character’s best moments in the series: “The humble snorter went straight to the slips, and the snatch was obviously lower than it ordinarily is.”
  • Dana has memory issues in “Ten Wickets” (“There are three things that I’m doing: I’m losing things, I’m forgetting things—and there’s a third one”), including losing her shoes (Isaac, on the phone, suggests she look on her feet), but at the end of the nightly broadcast when she strides out of the control room into the studio she has found them again, or so the foley would suggest.
  • Who can fail to feel sorry for the poor waiter who suggests pecan pie “one plate with two forks” to the couple who just a moment ago were admiring an engagement ring but now are fighting over infidelity?
  • Casey doesn’t feel any sense of noblesse oblige arising from his data wealth: “I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Danny. I have information most people don’t have. It’s my cross to bear.”
  • “Napoleon’s Battle Plan” features a slight but endearing subplot in which Jeremy explains to everyone why he’s not giving blood, even though not a single person cares: “That blood is ostensibly going someplace it needs to go. It’s on its way to oxidize something. I have to respect that.” This subplot would add a lot more value to the episode if it weren’t completely overshadowed, well-nigh erased in fact, by the serialized romance and relationship goings-on.
  • When Sally confesses to Dana that Casey doesn’t like her that much, it’s another important step toward making her a human character rather than a cardboard antagonist, and I appreciate it all the more because it wasn’t strictly necessary for the plot.
  • Casey’s vanity has become an interesting issue here late in the season. He mostly plays it for self-deprecating laughs (the stuff about his shapely calves, his mock gratitude to the makeup woman for complimenting his underwear with the non-compliment “It’s plaid”), but one wonders if it’s deep-seated enough to inform his problems with women across the board.
  • Saddest exchange of the week: Rebecca, right before she leaves to meet Steve who’s waiting for her downstairs, offers to Dan: “These people really seemed to think the Giants were going to go all the way this year,” and Dan simply turns her down: “They’re wrong.”