Sports Night: The Complete Series: 10th Anniversary Edition
Death to the laugh track
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 5, 2008
Sports Night: The Complete Series: 10th Anniversary EditionShout! Factory, $69.99
The laugh track. The topic was inevitable – it comes up in the commentary tracks and the accompanying docs for this 10th anniversary release – and of course it's there, too, in the whole of the first season, an ill fit for a show that never fit into easy categorization. ABC's forced inclusion of a laugh track in this groundbreaking half-hour hybrid from creator Aaron Sorkin and collaborator Tommy Schlamme (a UT alum) represented for Sorkin "the struggle for the soul of Sports Night" (as reported by Tad Friend in a 1998 New Yorker piece titled "Laugh Riot"). History knows now that Sorkin and Schlamme got the laugh track killed, but ABC sent the show to an early grave at the end of its second season (their real-life battling with the network worked its way into the show's storyline). The silver lining, believe it or not, came by way of NBC: It gave Sorkin and Schlamme (and much of the same cast and crew) a home for seven years, during which The West Wing became top-reviewed and top-rated – a network drama that not only demonstrated smarts, but demanded the same from its audience.
The groundwork was laid in Sports Night (although, in fact, The West Wing pilot sold before Sports Night's did; production delays postponed its debut until Sports Night's second season). Sorkin's rat-a-tat dialogue, repetition for effect, and soaring, high-minded monologues are all there. (Close readers will also recognize Sorkin sticky-fingering his own plots, such as the effect of a father's affair on his son and the relationship dynamic of a bromance, before pop culture had a word for it.) But Schlamme was the one who wore the tread out on the Steadicam and invented the patented walk-and-talk. Together, they paved the way for further adventures in undermining the traditional sitcom (witness Undeclared, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock).
Even among the Sorkin faithful, Sports Night is often counted as a noble, but failed, experiment: Sports shouldn't be this serious, they sigh. But look again. Sports Night has aged remarkably well, save the occasional retro hair stylings, and who wouldn't want to pass 22 minutes and then some in the company of its articulate, flawed, and, yes, funny characters? In the same New Yorker piece, Friend said, "Television encourages brief, fierce loyalties." Ten years on, it seems he got everything right but the "brief" part.