Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The <i>Sports Night</i> finale’s optimism has turned painfully bitter 20 years later

The Sports Night finale’s optimism has turned painfully bitter 20 years later

Photo: ABC/Getty Images, Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

“Anybody who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the money-making business.”

As far as Aaron Sorkin-penned fuck-yous go—a literary genre that encompasses everything from the opening of The Social Network, to the “Worst. Period. Generation. Period. Ever.” speech from The Newsroom, to that episode of The West Wing where Bradley Whitford gets obsessed with Television Without Pity—that line, from the final episode of Sports Night, is, on the surface, pretty mild. But it was also decidedly personal, pointed like a sharpened spear aimed straight at the heart of ABC, a network that never learned how to handle Sorkin’s early idiosyncrasies, slapping laugh tracks over his rapid-fire dialogue, bewildering diehard fans with inconsistent scheduling, and just generally seeming at a loss for what to make of this odd semi-sitcom from the writer behind The American President and A Few Good Men. In the show’s closing moments, Sorkin didn’t have Clark Gregg—doing cryptic-stranger duty years before he’d start popping up for similar jobs in the Marvel movies—literally say, “We made something excellent, and you corporate shitheads fucked it up.” But the intent was there.

“Quo Vadimus,” the series finale of Sports Night, aired 20 years ago this week. It would be a mistake to label the episode—which sees the staff of the titular cable sports show wrestle with their anxiety over being sold to an unknown corporate entity—as prescient. For one thing, the employees at the fictional Continental Sports Channel weren’t dealing with anything their real-world counterparts hadn’t been coping with for years by that point, as the media landscape in the late ’90s and early 2000s steadily calcified into the public face for a series of horse trades between a handful of a bewilderingly large corporate entities. (One of the episode’s nastiest notes is the acknowledgement that the entire cast’s livelihoods depend far less on the quality of their TV output than on the going rate for a decent-sized fiber optic network.) For another, the episode eventually reveals that it is—like so much of Sorkin’s work—a fable. Gregg’s Calvin Trager, who spends this and the previous episode flirt-splaining business reality to Felicity Huffman’s producer Dana, finally shows himself to be a hideously sideburned fairy godfather, one who recognizes what ABC never could: That Sports Night is a good show, and that good shows deserve to be preserved.

That urge to say “This is how it could be, if you’d all just listen to me!” is a tendency Sorkin has never been able to fight, any more than he can resist writing strong and intelligent female characters who nevertheless need things explained to them by articulate men at every possible opportunity. The West Wing was fueled almost entirely by this sort of wish-fulfillment fantasizing, a belief that reality can be lectured back into its proper shape. Even his more blatantly cynical media-focused shows, The Newsroom and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, employ a burnt-out version of this inherent optimism as a character trait common among their heroes. In Sorkin’s world, there are only two kinds of people: Those who want to make good things, and the people with all the power who inevitably get in their way.

Which is what makes “Quo Vadimus” both a very strange TV finale, and one that still resonates—“prescient” or not—two decades after it originally aired. It’s a half-hour of TV in which no meaningful decisions are made, not because the characters don’t want to make them, but because they have no power to do so. Josh Charles’ sports anchor Dan can’t do anything about his ex Rebecca (Teri Polo) barging back into his life, throwing him catastrophically off his game. Series leader Isaac (Robert Guillaume, wonderful as always despite the stroke that impaired his ability to speak for much of the show’s run) can’t stop his subordinates from spreading rumors like wildfire. And for all the running around Dana does in the episode, she accomplishes exactly nothing: Trager was always going to save the show, and all Dana’s antics did were give a pre-disgrace Huffman a little extra on-set cardio.

It’s possible to read this all as optimistic—the idea that Sports Night was so good, it didn’t have to do anything other than be itself in order to be saved. But the part that lingers, here in 2020, is the powerlessness. Viewers had spent two years with these characters, watching them try their best in unforgiving circumstances—Josh Malina’s charmingly nerdy Jeremy agonizing over a hunting story, Sabrina Lloyd’s Natalie fending off sexual harassment from a brutish player in a locker room. But in the end, these people, their hard work, their interpersonal conflicts and triumphs, had no impact whatsoever over whether they would keep their jobs. The people with the money couldn’t care less about Casey (Peter Krause) and Dana’s behind-the-scenes chemistry, or the lives of the wide assortment of charming minor characters who made up the series’ lower decks. About whether they would have to watch their friends and colleagues shuffle their way out into a job market already saturated with other excellent people who’d also been doing their best, before the people with the money decided they weren’t sufficiently profitable to keep around.

Sorkin gives this story the happy ending he and his colleagues couldn’t get—because he could, and because it makes for a much more comforting tale. But the optimism at the end of “Quo Vadimus” (it means “Where are we going?” by the way, which also probably felt a lot more hopeful at the time) only comes after it wades through the bleakness of a world in which being excellent and being successful are often not only different things, but diametrically opposed. In the end, Sports Night resolutely wasn’t prescient: The people who couldn’t make money off of it are still as entrenched in the money-making business as ever. It’s the show itself that’s now 20 years dead and gone.