Thursday, December 30, 2004

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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Napoleon's Battle Plan - Sometimes, not losing is just as good as winning.

This has got to be some kind of record.

I last posted to this blog two years, one month and 18 days ago, on January 28, 2002. On a lark, I googled for the site tonight and found it. Cool.

I'm not going to bother explaining where I've been. It would take too long and then we'd have to get into where the hell you've all been... who's got the time? Instead, I'm just going to pick up where I left off. It's time to discuss Episode 22, Napoleon's Battle Plan, which originally aired on April 27, 1999.

You remember this one: It's the episode that begins with Dan and Casey in their underpants. Actually, the boys spend two different scenes in their underwear, and it's the path from one to the other that makes up the meat of the story. You see, a wardrobe accident leaves them pantsless, which forces them to spend some time together waiting for the delivery. While waiting, the guys discuss Casey's reaction to Dana's announcement in the last episode that she has accepted Gordon's proposal of marriage.

Casey, of course, doesn't want her to marry Gordon for at least two reasons. First, he knows that Gordon slept with Sally a while back (remember the shirt?) and he can't allow a woman like Dana to marry a sleeze who would do that. Plus, he loves her. Of course, he can't tell her about either reason, because he is unwilling to admit his love and revealing Gordon's dalliance would reveal his own relationship with Sally.

This quandary makes up the bulk of the episode: What is Casey going to do?

His answer, of course, is the episode's title. He's going to show up and see what happens - a plan he ascribes to Napoleon. Dan is, of course, too much of a busybody to let things be, so he tells Natalie, Natalie tells Dana, Dana asks Gordon, Gordon reveals Casey to Dana, Dana confronts Sally, etc, etc, etc. By the end of the episode, everybody know everything about everyone, and - surprisingly - things are no better than before.

Sportsnight continues to do what it does best: reveal the way real people handle real life. Consider: If the episode is about Casey and Dana, why do we need to know so much about Jeremy's aversion to giving blood? Or, for that matter, what the heck is the deal with Dana's camera? Natalie's need to know everything and punish those who don't share information?

Life is beyond our control. Sartre, the philosopher, wrote, "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." In a world made increasingly absurd by science, philosophy and religion, man is left to determine his own place, his own value, his own purpose.

Dan chooses morality has his yardstick, deciding to "take the high road" to rationalization of his actions. Jeremy suffers from religious guilt, manifest in this episode by his inability to admit that he doesn't want to donate blood because, well... he doesn't want to donate blood. Nobody else cares, but he's too locked into his own world-view to notice. Natalie's existence is defined by service; to her friends and herself. She's an information broker who can't stand not being in-the-loop, where she can quickly decide who needs what information from her when.

Dana is stuck between two self-determined purposes. On the one hand, she sees her responsibility to the kind of life she's been taught to have: a husband, a career, a grown-up life. Gordon represents all of that.

On the other hand, she know that Casey has an appeal also. Sure, he's not as successful as Gordon, nor as rich, but she's a gal who works in sports and has told people to jump off a cliff before. She could take a chance on Casey... if he were only willing to do the same.

So, she's stuck, between the two worlds, without a clue which to choose. So, adrift in a sea of possibilities she can't decide between, Dana jumps toward a choice, any choice, as long as she can make it. Buy a camera? Of course it's silly. But, in the grand scheme of things, it's no more silly than marrying Gordon.

Or Casey.

And what of Casey? Where does he stand? Casey is a man who has been through one life already. He's got a son, an ex-wife, alimony and battle-scars to prove it. No... Casey's the only one of the bunch smart enough to play it cool. Dana's gonna get married? Dan lets his secret out? Nobody will give him his pants?

No problem. You see, he's decided to show up... and see what happens.

Monday, January 28, 2002

Ten Wickets - I'm glad I'm not the only one confused

For those of you who have been watching along with me, I'm sorry. ;)

You see, I didn't post this right after Ten Wickets aired... it's been a couple of days already. I wish I had an excuse, but the truth of the matter is that I wasn't sure what to write. This episode confused me because the method I usually use to unravel SN wasn't producing results.

The first thing I always do is consider the title. The episode title almost always points straight at whatever central symbol Sorkin is working with. But, attempting to juxtapose the cricket achievements of Mr. Chauncy St. John (of New Delhi) with the goings-on at CSC had me stumped.

Of course, that was until I saw the enourmous red flag that Sorkin had been waving beneath my nose.

You see, I'll bet that if you took a poll, few people would know what the hell the big deal is about getting all ten wickets in an inning. The show makes the point, over and over (and over!) that professional sports journalists don't know what that means... so we shouldn't feel bad that we don't either.

Now, let's look at some plot points:
  • Dana decides to marry Gordon.
  • Jeremy has worked through his issues and is back with Natalie.
  • Dan lets Rebecca go back to Steve Sisco.
  • Casey's big secrets regarding Gordon and Sally and him and Sally are out.
  • Casey proclaims Jerry Falwell a "fatass."

    Does any of this make sense?

    One of the things that sets SN apart is how seriously it takes it characters. In the world of this sitcom, love makes people behave the way real people do... they get snippy, hateful and downright ugly from time to time. The sordid love-rhombus between Casey, Dana, Sally and Gordon is a complicated one, but one that we can believe... particularly because of the terrible way Dan and Casey treat one another.

    As we've seen in earlier episodes, SN is willing to be less orderly, less contrived, more... real... than other sitcoms. Ten Wickets follows that rule: why else place Natalie and Jeremy's happiness together with Dan, Casey, Dana and Sally's misery? Do any of us understand why life works this way? No, we don't. But we keep trying to get the job done anyway.

    Because, like Jeremy, we understand that ignorance is no reason to miss out on a good story.
  • Thursday, January 24, 2002

    Ordnance Tactics - tick... tick... tick...

    You ever notice how life doesn't come with an instruction manual? Yet, we're all experts... in what other people should do.

    Ordnance Tactics (Episode 20, originally airing April 6, 1999) opens with a series of shots of the empty Sports Night offices. But these aren't late-night, power-off, janitorial shots, they're phones-ringing, computers-on, where-the-hell-are-all-the-people? shots. Then, in a flurried burst of activity, the cast and crew explode into the office, 10 minutes until air, and get ready for the show.

    We learn that everyone has been outside because of a bomb scare (interesting in retrospect, since the CSC Offices seemed to be in the WTC) and they've just now returned. They're hurried, psyched and ready to have a great show... except for Casey and Dan who are scared. A lot. Because of the bomb.

    What's fascinating about this episode (at least in my mind) comes down, again, to the central metaphor around which Sorkin's builds the show: the bomb.

    Consider what's happening to the folks at SN:

  • Isaac's in the hospital with the stroke and he's not getting better. JJ, representing the network brass, takes advantage of Isaac's absence to threaten Dana into letting him play a larger role in managing the show. He also forces her to pass over Natalie and give more responsibility to Sally, whom she hates.
  • Jeremy wants to break up with Natalie who refuses to acknowledge the break-up.
  • Rebecca may go back to her husband, sleazy sportscaster Steve Sisco, and there's nothing Dan can do about it.
  • Casey continues to see Sally, even though he, she and the rest of us know it's wrong.

    None of these issues are resolved during Ordnance Tactics, they're just presented and left festering. Tick... tick... tick...

    Again, Sorkin has mirrored our own real lives, identifying how we all feel when faced with situations that we know are wrong but don't know how to make right. At this point, almost to the end of the first season, every member of the show is dealing with a personal crisis, all related to each other through the relationships they share.

    Consider: because of Isaac's stroke, Dana finds herself forced to shoulder responsibility for the Sports Night organization, on top of her duties as Producer of the show. JJ appears, forcing her to look to Sally for assistance with the show, passing over Natalie. This creates tension in Dana's life on two fronts, Natalie and Sally/Casey.

    Dana doesn't like Sally for a number of reasons, high among them the fact that Casey does. Casey likes Sally (and is, in fact, sleeping with her) for a number of reasons, high among them the fact that Dana does not.

    Now, Casey is aware of the fact that Sally is wrong for him. He hesitates before inviting her over for the night and is quite rude to her besides. But, as in real life, the knowledge that he is in the wrong relationship is not enough to spur him out of it.

    Natalie is upset by Dana's decision to look past her and give more responsibility to Sally. Since she's feeling shafted professionally, she refuses to take abuse in her personal life, so she doesn't allow Jeremy to effect the break-up he thinks he wants.

    See how the rings all interlock? Never mind the further wrinkles contributed by Dan's frustration with Rebecca, a relationship which he knows is right but must sacrifice... so that the wrong people win for the right reasons.

    Sorkin has managed to capture the complexity of truth in human relationships. Nothing in life is ever as simple as things are on... well, on TV (SN excluded, obviously), and these sorts of challanges are never neatly resolved in 30 minutes, the way shows like The Facts of Life and Ally McBeal would have us believe.

    Instead of solving these problems, Ordnance Tactics just presents them... puts them out on the table so we know they're there - ticking away - waiting to explode. Then, to give us a reason to believe that these people's lives are worth caring about, Sorkin presents a final scene, in which Dan, Casey, Natalie and Dana find solace in the on thing real people in real relationships can always count on... their friends:

      DANA: We're not having our best week, are we?

      CASEY: No.

      DANA: I can't remember the last time things were this awful.

      DAN: And it might even get worse.

      NATALIE: Excellent.

      CASEY: There's some good news coming in eleven seconds, though.

      DANA: Good news?

      CASEY: Yeah.

      DANA: What?

      CASEY: Ready?

      KIM (VO): Three minutes to air. First team in the studio please.

      CASEY: Have a good show.

    As we all do in our own lives, the characters in Sports Night deal with problems by turning to things they can count on, the people they care about and the things they love to do. The rest? Well all we can all do is hope that falls into place...
  • Wednesday, January 23, 2002

    Eli's Coming - How can something so serious be so funny?

    I've picked this episode at random to begin blogging - it was the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel's proverbial back - even though it comes late in the first season. It's Episode 19, originally airing on March 30, 1999

    You may remember the high plot points of Eli's Coming:
  • Isaac has the stroke.
  • Dana, who passed the show off to Sally two episodes ago (How Are Things in Glocca Morra?) begins to see how angry Casey is about it.
  • Dan is presented with photographic proof of his wrong-doing vis-a-vis Bobbi Bernstein the same night Rebecca tells him that she's not technically divorced from her "ex" husband, Steve Sisco.

    While lots of lousy things happen to lots of people, the episode's tragedy seems to revolve around Dan, who senses the ill wind approaching early on. He says:

      This day's got the earmarks, Casey. Where's Rebecca?  I ask you that.
      She was gonna come by to hang out a little bit, yet she's down in her office with Steve Sisco...
      Rebecca isn't here, Isaac isn't here, there's a strangeness about this day... Eli's coming.

    One of the things Sorkin does so well in SN is manage serious material in the sitcom format. He's used the symbol of this song (by Three Dog Night) to set a tone for the episode; Dan explains that, in the song, Eli is, "...something bad.  A darkness." This line, combined with Dan's identification of all that seems to be wrong, tells us that something wicked this way comes.

    Contrast this thematic statement with the fact that, as Casey points out, Dan has misinterpreted the song. The song isn't about evil portents at all - it about a womanizing man named Eli - and the show-long running gag involving Dan's admitted misunderstanding of the song serves as counterpoint to the fact that he's right after all. Sorkin has married humor and tragedy in a way that is reminiscent of real life.

    Consider the scene in which Dan learns that Rebecca is considering returning to Steve Sisco.

      REBECCA: He [Steve] wants to go into counseling.

      DAN: Let me tell you, that guy could use counseling.  He is, among other things, an inveterate womanizer,
      not unlike the title character from the song by Three Dog Night - if you choose to look at it that way -
      which I don't. I see it as a portent of something dark.  But that's not what you meant by "counseling," is it?

      REBECCA: No.

      DAN: He wants to go into couples' counseling.

      REBECCA: Yes.

      DAN: With you.

      REBECCA: Yes.

    As viewers, we know that our lives are not neatly divided into comedy and tragedy. Our lives simply happen, one moment at a time, organized in no way at all. This is why serious moments rarely work in the Sitcom format. Shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Barney Miller managed to get it right, while shows like Blossom never could.

    Sports Night does, resoundingly and repeatedly. Sorkin contrapuntally balances the shows' themes with realistic conflict and tragedy measured against enough humor to allow us to like the characters and want to see what they do next. Eli's Coming is only one example of how he does this, granting the show a verisimillitude based on its striking similarity to the laughable tragedies in our own lives.