Never fails to amaze me how few people have seen Sports Night. If you're scratching your head, trying to recall if you know the name, chances are you're one of the many who hasn't seen this US TV series. Sports Night was a sitcom devised and written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing [TWW hereafter]. It launched in '98 and ran for two seasons, the second overlapping with TWW's first year on TV. Sports Night got canned, despite rising ratings.
The simply reason why most UK viewers don't know Sports Night is it never got screened on a British terrestrial channel [though you can find repeats on digital channels if you hunt around]. To the best of my knowledge, it's never been released on DVD in the UK [though you can import the new 10th anniversary edition from the US if your DVD player can cope with multi-region discs]. As a result, Sports Night remains an undiscovered gem for many.
In short, the show is set behind the scenes at a sports news show on a major cable network. But Sports Night is about people, not sports. A lot of American sports jargon does fly around, but it's the characters and the comedy that make it worth watching. Sorkin can write a funny behind the scenes at a TV show show, although some might not have thought so after his second attempt at this specialised sub-genre, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, tanked.
Why's Sports Night worth seeking out? There is a crackerjack cast, for starters. Peter [Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money] Krause, Felicity [Desperate Housewives, Transamerica] Huffman, Joshua [The West Wing] Malina and Robert [Soap, Benson] Guillaume are among the main series regulars. The guest cast is just as impressive, including William H Macy, Janel Maloney, Lisa Edelstein, Ray Wise and others who've gone on to notable success since.
Sports Night is the place where Sorkin learned how to write for TV, and tried out many of the tricks and tropes that served him so well on TWW. It was also where Sorkin forged his creative partnership with director Thomas Schlamme. On Sports Night they developed the walk-and-talk visual style that make exposition so energised on TWW. They built a storytelling shorthand that would lead to many, many plaudits and influence many other shows.
Watching Sports Night with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Sorkin trialling storylines and characterisations he would repeat and refine on TWW. Dan Rydell is the forerunner for Josh Lyman in TWW. Whole plots get recycled from Sports Night into TWW, such as Sam discovering his father's been having an affair for 27 years [in Sports Night, that happens to Joshua Malina's character]. This series is John the Baptist to TWW's more messianic success.
Most of all, Sports Night is fun to watch. The first few are a bit clunky and preachy, as the writer finds his TV legs, but things improve rapidly. And there's a laugh track that irks like hell, but it quickly fades into the background. [Literally - the programme makers kept turning down the volume switch on the laugh track.] Best of all, there's 45 episodes of Sorkin goodness you may never have seen before, just waiting for you to discover. Enjoy!