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

Sports Night: “The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee”/“Smoky”

Illustration for article titled Sports Night: “The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee”/“Smoky”

What we fear most from Aaron Sorkin in these post-Studio 60 days is self-importance. Full of brio about some cause, he gets his characters all riled up and the speechifyin’ begins. (I’ve only watched the first episode of The Newsroom at this point, but isn’t that the source of the creeping dread with which we approach each new installment?) So the charm of a small episode of Sports Night, a determinedly minor bit of television in which the point seems more to let everyone have a lot of fun than to score hits in the culture wars, cannot be overstated.

“The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee” (season 1 episode 11, original airdate 12/15/98)

Who would have thought that this episode, centered as it is around a big honkin’ speech about the Confederate Flag, would be so gloriously small in that way? Despite the topic, despite the speech, despite the gathering of the entire cast and crew to applaud,, nothing about it seems like the kind of Grand Statement we fear from Sorkin. It’s because the stakes involved for the characters, not just for the culture, are carefully detailed. And it’s because the big speech is immediately, gracefully, and movingly upstaged by the naming of the crew—one of the best moments the show ever engineered, and so perfect for occurring precisely when the audience has completely forgotten about the subplot that it concludes.

In another bit of cross promotion that I’m certain boosted the ratings of both shows tremendously, Casey appears on ABC’s The View to gab with Barbara and her gals about … sports? Obviously not, because Dan teases Casey mercilessly about going on that “cooking show.” When Casey protests that “I’m not cooking, it’s not a cooking show, it’s a news show,” Dan asks who the other guest is. “It’s Wolfgang Puck, you want a piece of me?” Casey nearly explodes. Peter Krause plays beleaguered so very well, with a smile that says he knows it’s all a joke but a vehemence that betrays real annoyance. I’m not as big a fan of Krause playing abashed, though, and that’s the mode he adopts after failing to pass along the compliment to his wardrobe supervisor when the View ladies make a big fuss about how nice his ties are. Assistant wardrobe supervisor Monica Brazelton (Janel Moloney, later to become Donna Moss on The West Wing) shows up in his office to upbraid him for his neglect of the little people. She humiliates him—sadly, but quite thoroughly—for not understanding the importance of knowledge about colors and fabrics and combinations, and for taking for granted its contribution to his success. Every time there’s a cut back to an abashed, unhappily enlightened Casey, enduring this lecture in silence, I cringe. It’s a big speech from which any plot, major or minor, would find it hard to recover.

The titular plotline involves a developing story out of Chattanooga (my hometown, spelled with “two O’s, three A’s … there are other letters, too” as Jeremy points out), where the fictional university of Tennessee Western has the unfortunate habit of flying the Confederate battle flag outside its football stadium. Star player Roland Shepherd says he won’t play unless the school takes the flag down, and six of his teammates join him. Word comes down from Continental Corp’s owner Luther Sachs, a Tennessee Western alum and booster, for “Sports Night” to do a piece about Southern tradition and heritage, something about gentlemen and Faulkner. Everybody thinks Isaac ought to do an editorial, but Isaac is (a) afraid that Luther is looking for excuses to fire him, and (b) tired of being thought of as “the champion of all things black.” Meanwhile, the staff is assembling candidates for Play of the Year (“Play O’ The Year!” Dan announces on air with great enthusiasm), which involves much sniping about Kim’s promotion of women’s hockey and a curious (in retrospect) lack of cynicism about Mark McGwire’s 70 home runs.

Nobody does the third act quite like Sorkin, do they? Ably assisted in the writing by Matt Tarses, Bill Wrubel, and David Walpert, Sorkin assembles one of his trademark confluences as Isaac accepts the responsibility of doing the Tennessee Western editorial and shows how a Sorkin big speech always ought to be done. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, with its emphasis on the personal costs borne by those who take a stand, rather than the political righteousness of the stand itself—an emphasis that culminates in the call for Luther Sachs to take that same stand, and in the connection of that individual growth with the academic mission of the University as embodied in its motto exaudio, comperio, conloquor. The assembled crew breaks into applause and Dan congratulates Isaac with: “No kidding, play of the year.” Then—then!—Dan and Casey end the show by naming a couple dozen folks in that crowd of the crew as the first installment of an ongoing holiday gift of thanks. It’s Sorkin’s gift to his crew, in reality, since the names are all members of the Sports Night family. In that surfeit of specificity, witnessed by everyone on the team as the camera pulls back over their heads in a simple, gorgeous movement, all the grand statements are grounded in the small gesture of appreciation. So unexpected, given what the episode seemed to be building toward. So beautiful.

“Smoky” (season 1 episode 12, original airdate 1/5/99)

Coming back from a brief break for Christmas 1998, the show has another brief go at serialization, playing out the consequences of Isaac defying his boss with the “God go with you, Roland Shepherd and you six Southern gentlemen of Tennessee” speech. Feeling even more vulnerable although the speech did not get him immediately fired, Isaac talks with Dana about her moving up into his job (“I like to answer to people, I don’t want to create!” she protests). This starts a chain reaction of everyone jockeying to see whose job they will be moving up into when the music starts and folks start marching around the chairs. Natalie will have Dana’s job, of course, and Kim assumes that she will get Natalie’s, leading to the hilarious moment when she and Elliot stand in Isaac’s doorway so Elliot can protest this line of reasoning, and so Kim can petition: “When I get Natalie’s job, is there a union regulation that prevents me from making Elliot my man slave?”

The scent of an open producer’s job inevitably attracts Sally Sasser, who first works her wiles on Casey by displaying the ankle she injured playing Clemson in defiance of Casey’s insistence that it was her knee. (“Came out okay!” Casey stammers upon unexpectedly having Sally’s leg in his lap.) Then she heads for Isaac’s office, where we are treated to a lovely example of a scene in which Sorkin excels: People jockeying for position while overtly observing the niceties of not nakedly jockeying for position. Sally goes on and on about Isaac’s amazing suit, and Isaac pretends not to notice that the only reason she cares about his suit is because she wants something from him. “Could be Hugo Boss,” Sally observes; “You never know!” Isaac chirps through gritted teeth.

Sally’s approach to Casey comes just as Dan decides that Casey needs to start dating again. “It is time, It’s past time,” Dan insists; “It’s not past time,” Casey argues; “It’s well past time,” Dan shoots back, and begins plotting how to get Casey back into the pool. “Everybody still wears shoes, right?” Casey hazards, and Dan triumphantly barks, “Ha! Do they ever!” But Sally gives Dan pause, because while it might be time for Yoko Ono (“You know Yoko Ono?” “I’m a fan of her music, yes”), it’s not time to “dally with Sally” (“that was an unfortunate rhyme, but still”). While she’s beautiful and capable, she’s just too demonic for Dan to consider allowing Casey to head in that direction.

When Casey professes to be unaware that Sally was flirting with him during the whole ankle-inspection incident (“I missed the whole thing,” he says blankly when Dan asserts it), Dana insists that he brush up on his flirting skills—naturally, by “pretending” to flirt with Dana, in time-honored sitcom fashion. Charmingly, he begins by asking her name as if they are both playing other people, but eventually he demonstrates that he knows just how to win her heart, telling her just exactly how she’s beautiful: “Classy, impressive, sexy … you’re smoky.” This successful romantic interchange contrasts with Natalie’s efforts to get Jeremy to go along with her sex talk in the office, which consists of Jeremy explaining computer error codes to her. “We were having phone sex!” she explains when he gets confused over her ardor; “I didn’t even know!” he protests, echoing Casey’s cluelessness over Sally’s advances. The contrast is between the subtextual satisfactions of the unconsummated lovers, where every move and countermove can be savored, and the pedestrian literalness of those already openly relating, who find it impossible to back up to that heady time of suggestion and innuendo. When Natalie mentions Casey’s flirtation, and Dana calls it “a rehearsal of sorts … a class,” Natalie requests: “If you aren’t too far along, can Jeremy join?”

At last, and again in the great sitcom tradition, Isaac demands to know how the rumor of his imminent departure and Dana’s grooming got spread. “Natalie’s my second in command, she’s the only one I told,” Dana protests. “Jeremy’s my boyfriend, he’s the only one I told,” Natalie demurs. “I told many, many people,” Jeremy confesses. And so the jockeying stops, all the pieces are set back in place, and this small story ends with a long laugh at Jeremy’s expense and everybody sent back to work. Utterly satisfying, and not a big speech, grand statement or hot topic in sight. It’s the little things.

Grades: “The Six Southern Gentlemen Of Tennessee,” B+; “Smoky,” A-

Stray observations:

  • Dan Rydell plays only a supporting role in both of these episodes; none of the plotlines are Dan-centric. And yet Josh Charles’ casually confident line readings are the secret star. ‘You play for a team, a team with many players,” he explains to Casey. “And because we’ve got soccer highlights, the sheer pointlessness of a zero-zero tie,” he concludes a tease at the top of the show. “See how you were able to tell me that without taking your clothes off?” he points out to Sally. And of course, when studiously trying to pry Casey away from Sally, “What’s wrong with the unmistakeable human frailty of Yoko Ono?”
  • I’m not sure why a university in Chattanooga would be called Tennessee Western; Chattanooga is in East Tennessee. The university that is in fact in Chattanooga is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, or UTC, home of the Moccasins. As far as I know, and my folks had season tickets throughout my youth, the Stars and Bars never flew outside of Chamberlain Field, whose demolition I sadly watched on a live webstream last summer.
  • Natalie wants to list possible plays of the year with pros and cons. Jeremy snipes that women are “never quite so happy as when they’re making a little list.” (I’m not offended. I do love making a little list.)
  • Kim fans have so much to like about these two episodes. I’ll just point out the energetic way she says “give a good damn.”
  • “I’d like to try organic gardening,” Isaac muses about his retirement. “Do you know what it is?” Dana asks skeptically. “No, but I was thinking about getting a book,” Isaac confesses.
  • Hey, It’s 1999 All Of A Sudden!: Cocoon references are still viable (Dan on Sally: “At night she peels off her body and lives on Steve Gutenberg’s boat”).
  • Exaudio, comperio, conloquor doesn’t quite translate literally “to listen, to learn, to speak,” as your local classicist pedant will no doubt tell you if you unwisely mention this motto in their presence. All three verbs are in the first person present active, so the phrase actually means “I listen, I learn, I speak.” Since the first person present active is the first form of the verb listed in standard dictionaries, and since English typically regards the infinitive as the neutral or definition form of the verb, the confusion of a someone who doesn’t know Latin is understandable and forgivable. (Mr. Sorkin, who has undoubtedly been waiting for my forgiveness, will certainly be relieved to hear it.) If you would like to adopt the actual Latin translation of “to listen, to learn, to speak” for your fake online university, try exaudire, comperire, conloqui.
  • Dan: “The iron, you’re going to strike it.” Casey: “Because it’s hot, right now?”