'Sports Night'scores with offbeat mix

Monday, December 14, 1998

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hate to do this on a Monday morning, but here's a pop quiz:

How many of you watched:

  • (a) Living in Captivity.
  • (b) Costello.
  • (c) Mercy Point.
  • (d) Bo Derek's Wind on Water.
  • (e) None of the above.

If you answered "e," you didn't miss much.

All of the above were so awful they were canceled in a few weeks, gone before November sweeps.

Now the good news: Some of the surviving new fall TV shows are worth watching.

At the top of my list is ABC's Sports Night (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Channels 9, 2), my favorite new show. It's also very difficult to describe.

Sports Night, a half-hour series set in an ESPN-like cable TV newsroom, is not a sports show.

And it's not a raucous, can-you-top-this newsroom comedy like Murphy Brown or Mary Tyler Moore, and it doesn't have an obnoxious laugh track.

There are no big stars, as with previous sports TV sitcoms (Ryan O'Neal's Good Sports, 1991, or Arsenio Hall's Arsenio, 1997). So what is it?

Sports Night is a tender, smart comedy-drama built on the very human relationships of the sports anchors, producers and crew. Except for Robert Guillaume as the boss, Sports Night is filled with virtually unknown actors:

  • Josh Charles and Peter Krause as anchors Dan Rydell and Casey McCall.

  • Felicity Huffman as producer Dana Whitaker.

  • Sabrina Lloyd as writer Natalie Hurley.

  • Joshua Malina as research geek Jeremy Goodwin.

The interaction of these characters is unlike any in a half-hour TV series. That's because the words come from a playwright and screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include A Few Good Men and The American President.

Helping supervise the series are producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (Apollo 13, Parenthood, Willow, Ransom).

Mr. Sorkin created the hybrid "dramedy" after becoming fascinated by the camaraderie of ESPN anchors while locked in a hotel room rewriting The American President.

But sports merely provides the backdrop to the budding romance of Natalie and Joshua, or Dana's discovery of Broadway musicals, or Dan's dilemma about donating to charities.

And when a sporting event becomes a running theme in the show, it has been marathons and mountain climbing, not the macho world of football, hockey, boxing or baseball.

This isn't just some jock fest for Sports Center fanatics. The appeal is universal, even if the universe hasn't discovered it yet.

Twelve weeks into the TV season, Sports Night is tied at No. 44 with Friday's Dateline NBC, Nash Bridges and The Secret Lives of Men (which already has been canceled). It's second in the time period to CBS' movie, and ahead of WB's Felicity, NBC's Working and Cris Collinsworth's Guinness World Records: Primetime on Fox.

But ABC's viewership drops 18 percent for Sports Night after Spin City (No. 18). Then ratings jump 57 percent for NYPD Blue (No. 10). That's not good.

So far, ABC executives are pleased with the show, and haven't considered pulling or moving it, an ABC publicist says. That's good.

Readers tell me they want something different on TV. They're tired of the same-old, same-old. Well, here it is.

What Sports Night needs is to be left alone for the entire season, so you can find the new episodes or repeats.

Networks with the greatest patience have reaped the greatest rewards in today's cluttered 100-channel universe.

The Drew Carey Show was almost canceled in spring of its first season - and then took off in summer reruns and exploded into a hit. It has taken more than a year for you to make hits out of quality shows like The Practice, JAG, Everybody Loves Raymond, Touched by an Angel, Diagnosis Murder or Homicide: Life on the Street.

If the networks are smart, they'll stick with Sports Night, Cupid, Martial Law, L.A. Doctors, That '70s Show, The Hughleys and Al Franken's Lateline, which returns after an unwarranted eight-month absence on Jan. 6 (9 p.m., Channels 5, 22).

All could be around well into the new millennium - if the networks have the patience to keep them on the air all year.

John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.