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The Boston Phoenix No Guts, No Glory

Sports Night is painless.

By Robert David Sullivan

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  The nerdy new kid in camp is writing a letter home to his sister, and his voice-over narration guides us through a workday full of camaraderie, sexual tension, one-liners . . . and death. No, M*A*S*H isn't back; this is an episode of Sports Night, which takes place behind the scenes of a cable program that greatly resembles ESPN's SportsCenter. The military feel of the show isn't surprising, given that its creator and principal writer is Aaron Sorkin, who's best known for writing the stage and film versions of A Few Good Men.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to portray the making of a TV show with the same respect given to surgeons on the front lines of a war, but Sports Night is beginning to justify its risky premise. The name suggests yet another annoyingly self-referential sit-com (like Hiller and Diller, the show ABC put in this time slot last year), but in practice the series is going after more universal themes. Sports Night says that the constantly warring emotions of pride and embarrassment feel the same whatever one does for work -- which means you can enjoy the series even if, like me, you'd rather get a tooth pulled than sit through a football game.

In that "letter home" episode, death comes to an elderly black man, a former Negro League baseball player who's savagely beaten during a carjacking (which occurs off screen). The new guy on the staff (Joshua Malina, as a less cutesy version of Radar O'Reilly) screws up his courage to argue that there are many more compelling sports stories to report that day -- unaware that the ballplayer was an old acquaintance of network executive Isaac Jaffee (a crisply authoritative Robert Guillaume, finally free of playing sarcastic black characters like Benson on Soap). Isaac, in turn, can't be happy about the fact that he lost touch with the ballplayer, or that he failed to recognize the name at first. Later we get an unusually nuanced image for a sit-com: Guillaume's grim but controlled face in the foreground and, on a monitor behind him, a graphic of the ballplayer with his birth and death dates.

The lead characters of the real SportsCenter are the co-hosts of the fictional Sports Night: a blow-dried, Craig Kilborne look-alike named Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and an insecure junior anchor named Dan Rydell (Josh Charles). Neither one is an idiot à la Ted Baxter, which may be a first among behind-the-camera sit-coms. Casey is in love with producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), and in the letter-writing episode he makes fun of Dana's current boyfriend, a federal prosecutor, for losing a major organized-crime case. His glee over a killer's acquittal is funny, but the character remains sympathetic. Scenes like this give Sports Night a tartness that's promised but rarely delivered in supposedly adult sit-coms like Spin City. And if you want well-timed slapstick, there's an assistant producer (Sabrina Lloyd) trying to cure Dan's writer's block by repeatedly throwing water in his face. (If it works for hiccups . . . )

We can thank ABC for not insisting that Sports Night try to grab viewers with cameos by real-life athletes. (The drop-ins by real-life journalists always brought Murphy Brown to a halt.) But we must curse the network for saddling Sports Night with an exasperating laugh track. It disappears for long stretches because some of the dialogue is so fast-paced and characters often get to speak for more than 10 seconds at a time. Just as you become absorbed in the show, however, a sudden burst of synthetic chortling reminds you that you're wasting another night watching sit-coms. Is this really consistent with ABC's hip "TV is good" campaign?

I don't want to overdo my praise for Sports Night, which can get maudlin and can throw out common sense in favor of an obvious sight gag (as when the producer thaws a turkey by setting it atop the lights directly over the anchor desk during a live broadcast). In short, it must fight the same excesses that overcame M*A*S*H as that show became more and more popular. But Sports Night is unlikely ever to have such broad appeal, which means it can remain a program written for adults. And after the inspired but chilly Larry Sanders Show -- and the forced humor of Murphy Brown -- it's refreshing to see a backstage sit-com that tries to do more than poke fun at celebrities.

Robert David Sullivan can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.

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