Maybe it’s because I recently had to write four different reviews of Aaron Sorkin’s latest play, or maybe it’s because I recently encountered someone who reminds me of the whole Josh Charles/Teri Polo storyline and makes me hear that blasted Neil Finn song, but I revisited Sports Night this evening. As expected, I laughed (okay, more than expected), but I was not prepared for how raw, honest, and complex some of the key exchanges were.
A few years ago, there was a book printed called 100 Things to Love and Hate About Television. The West Wing was in there, but another entry in the book called Sports Night “Aaron Sorkin’s real gift” to popular culture. After hundreds of hours of The West Wing, the entire run of Studio 60, and a month dwelling on The Farnsworth Invention, I have to say that I agree with the book. For as witty, inspiring, incisive, or just flat-out entertaining as his later projects have been, none of it has made me think and feel as much as Sports Night did tonight.
This is not just because of the writing, although it is probably the most emotionally honest and self-consciously stylish Sorkin has ever produced. It is because here, the actors bring a painful humanity to their roles. Most scenes seem haunted by the specter of the fact that every character participating has been pursuing their careers at the expense of their real lives. That the actors can underline even superfluous control-room chatter with a stifled desire for a balanced human life makes the witty banter something more–an attempt to hide their unstable selves.
“I’ve done enough rotten things to women in my life–there’s no question I’m going straight to hell,” Josh Charles’ character quips to a female correspondent who has repeatedly accused him of having slept with her and then not calling. “I really don’t need you padding the ballot box.” This is indicative of the attitude most of these characters take to their flaws and to their dis-satisfactions–they can’t deny them, but they can’t face them. So, they hide behind their “superior wit and guile.” Whether that’s all on the page or not, the cast plays it well.
So, when Felicity Huffman’s character confronts Brenda Strong’s and the two let loose with a flurry of cutting verbal attacks and vulnerable confessions with no attempt to use wit to hide themselves or soften the blows, it’s not only interesting and gripping, it’s unsettling. We’ve seen these characters say things that are true, but this is the first time any of them allow themselves to be honest.
I didn’t think I could still be surprised by Sorkin, and was sure that I couldn’t ever be surprised by Sports Night again.
Thankfully, I was wrong. This is why I’m lucky to be able to write.