The night of September 22nd, 1998 saw the debut of the first television series created by Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night. This was a year before the premiere of The West Wing, so there probably weren’t many in the television viewing audience who were all that familiar with Sorkin. He had previously written the stageplay for A Few Good Men and then adapted it into a film. He also wrote the screenplays for Malice and The American President (from which The West Wing was developed) as well as doing script polishes on films such as Schindler’s List and Bulworth. He had submitted pilot scripts for both Sports Night and The West Wing and the former was the first to get picked up for a series.
The show’s ensemble cast was already well pedigreed and highly acclaimed at that point, consisting of Josh Charles (Dead Poet’s Society), Peter Krause (The Truman Show), Felicity Huffman (The Spanish Prisoner), Joshua Malina (From The Earth To The Moon and most of Sorkin’s productions to that point), Sabrina Lloyd (Sliders) and Robert Guillame (Soap, Benson and many others. Really, if you aren’t a fan of Guillame, then shame on you.). The setting was behind the scenes of a cable sports news program (much like ESPN’s SportsCenter), but, really, the situation was more or less a MacGuffin as the focus was squarely on the characters and their daily lives and interactions with each other. Sports, too, was pretty peripheral to the plot and you needn’t be a sports fan to watch. The comedy portion of this “sit-com” was also not the focus as, while there were plenty of chuckle to laugh-out-loud moments, there was a fair amount of seriousness brought to the proceedings, often in a humorous then somber, one-two punch. Most notably was the series rapid fire and witty dialogue, usually delivered while following the characters as they briskly walked through the elaborate set with other characters drifting in and out of the conversation in one long continuous take. This “walk and talk” style of shooting would become a trademark of Aaron Sorkin television productions, but was very unique back in ’98. In case audiences forgot that this was supposed to be a situation comedy, ABC tacked on a laugh track which proved distracting to the point that it was faded more and more to the background as the first season wore on and, thankfully, abandoned all together in the second season.
“When I was lead into the office of Jamie Tarses, who was then the president of ABC, I’d never pitched a series before.” – Aaron Sorkin
The full series came to DVD in 2002 in a bare-bones, episodes-only set. However, for the 10th anniversary of the premiere of the show, Shout! Factory has pulled out all the stops for a set that will please all longtime fans and really impress those finding it for the first time. From the outset, the packaging (courtesy of Midnight Oil Creative) looks damn sharp. The best thing about the design is that this does not look like a decade old show. The sharp-looking outer box houses the four slim cases containing the eight discs in the set as well as thirty-two page book that features an introduction by Aaron Sorkin, trivia for various episodes and a centerfold schematic of the main set. Speaking of the set, each disc has menus that recreate a portion of the set, whether it be a bank of TV monitors for the episode selection or the broadcast studio for the main menu. Again, really nice looking. And then we get to the discs.
Both seasons get four discs each, with the respective episodes spread over three discs capped by a fourth containing bonus material. All 45 episodes are presented in Full Frame with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Considering the extra effort that was put into it when it was originally being produced, this show definitely looks and sounds nice on DVD. A very welcome extra is the inclusion of eight episodic commentaries (five for the first season and three for the second) most enlightening of which are the pilot and series finale commentaries done by both Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme. This was the first time these two worked together and their stories of the beginning of their working partnership, getting the show off the ground, and the end of the show (this is only a small sampling of the topics covered) is great to listen to and an interesting lesson in the workings of television production. It’s rare that I’m immediately interested in a commentary, but I knew I would check these out right away and I wasn’t disappointed.
As great as it is to see these wonderful episodes in the best possibly quality, the real joy of this set is the two bonus discs. There are gag reels for each season that are very funny to watch. These were shown at each seasons’ wrap parties and are a great window behind the scenes. Another nice little addition is four promo spots that aired on ABC leading up to the series premiere. All four are tongue-in-cheek and highlight the tone of the show. The four spots were the perfect way to market this show so why ABC proceeded to fail to do so is beyond me. The centerpiece of the bonus disks are the four featuretes. First is “The Show” which features all-new interviews with many of the cast and a few of the crew. One thing blatantly apparent from this interviews is that everyone still really cherishes their time making the show and wish it could have continued. “Face-Off: ESPN’s SportsCenter vs. CSC’s Sports Night” offers a comparison to the goings-on in the fictional show as compared to what really goes on behind the scenes in making a real-life sports news show, including the real life inspirations for one of the fictional characters and some of the stories. I was prepared to end up skimming through this bit, but was surprisingly entertained by it. It proved to be a very interesting treatise on art imitating life. “Looking Back” provides a candid and insightful conversation with Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme wherein they discuss the joy and struggles of making the show, the beginning of their ongoing partnership and how they intended for Sports Night to not be just another typical situation comedy. Rounding things out is “Inside The Locker Room” in which more of the crew and a few of the cast discuss the technical and creative innovations that occurred due to the nature of how the show was envisioned and filmed.
“We filmed the [pilot] show over eight days in mid-April. On May 7th my agent called me. ‘Write 21 more of them,’ he told me. ‘What?’ I said. ‘You’re on television.’” -Aaron Sorkin, on the response to the pilot.
This is simply a fantastic set and I give much kudos to Shout! Factory for the effort. The only two disappointments are that they didn’t remove the laugh track from season one and the deleted scenes mentioned in the press release are not present. However, I understand that the episodes simply could not be remastered to remove the canned laughter and the deleted scenes were either not found or of poor enough quality that they couldn’t be included. Those are minor gripes, to be sure, as the delivered package is a must have. This set hits the store on September 30th and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be waiting to buy your own copy that day.
Thanks to Shout! Factory for the preview of this set.