Review: ‘Sports Night’

"Sports Night" is the most entertaining new comedy premiering in primetime this fall, precisely because it doesn't look or feel like anything else the networks are tossing against the wall.

“Sports Night” is the most entertaining new comedy premiering in primetime this fall, precisely because it doesn’t look or feel like anything else the networks are tossing against the wall. It cleverly defies all of the dreary fall sitcom trends: black people moving into white neighborhoods, single parents struggling to hold housefuls of screaming brats in line, gay men yearning to make sense of a straight world, and young adults basically acting like idiots.

We get none of that in this edgy satire given life via Imagine TV’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and their stamp of humanity is all over the first two episodes.

“Sports Night” is essentially ESPN’s “SportsCenter” meets “thirtysomething,” complete with whining. It’s about spoiled, neurotic Caucasians working for a latenight cable sports news program on the fictitious Continental Sports Channel, and in his snappy opening pair of scripts, writer/exec producer Aaron Sorkin makes us care about these nutballs.

Superbly cast and blessed with impressive energy, show takes auds behind the scenes for an up-close-and-a-bit-too-personal introduction to egomaniacal “Sports Night” anchors Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause). In the premiere, Casey’s job is in jeopardy because he keeps allowing his divorce to affect his on-air demeanor (“I’ve turned into a PR man for punks and thugs!”).

In toiling to bring his partner and buddy out of this funk, droll Dan has the considerable help of their producer Dana Whitaker (a scene-stealing turn from Felicity Huffman, who has the look of a breakout star). Likewise contributing stellar support are Robert Guillaume as the show-within-a-show’s head man, and Sabrina Lloyd as flighty production assistant Natalie, offsetting Joshua Malina’s annoyingly wacky perf as new hire Jeremy.

Second episode is more effective still in its seamless blending of the comic, the crass and the poignant in a seg that finds Dan on the hot seat for refusing to condemn marijuana use in an Esquire quote. Guillaume, in particular, shows his chops here in affecting ways.

Helmer Thomas Schlamme’s ability to weave chaos into art with quick-cut assurance helps inflect the show with a sharp realism. The characters drive the action with confidence and spunk. If there is a problem area, it’s Sorkin’s inability to liven the jokes to match the originality of the execution itself.

Surely, no one is liable to mistake “Sports Night” for “The Larry Sanders Show.” It needs to sharpen its ax and really let loose on the sports establishment, which is overdue for a good pounding. But make no mistake, the show arrives on the schedule looking uncommonly seasoned for a raw rookie.

Against iffy Tuesday night competition, it will probably get all the time it needs to grow.

Tech credits are superior.

Sports Night

Sitcom; ABC, Tues. Sept. 22, 9:30 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Burbank by Imagine TV in association with Touchstone TV. Executive producers, Aaron Sorkin, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Tony Krantz, Thomas Schlamme, Rob Scheidlinger; co-executive producers, Jeff Lowell, Matt Berry, Ric Swartzlander, Tim Doyle; producers, John Amodeo, Tracey Stern, Rachel Sweet; co-producer, Matt Tarses; director, Schlamme; writer, Sorkin.

Cast

Dan Rydell - Josh Charles Casey McCall - Peter Krause Dana Whitaker - Felicity Huffman Isaac Jaffe - Robert Guillaume Jeremy Goodwin - Joshua Malina Natalie Hurley - Sabrina Lloyd J.J. - Robert Mailhouse Kim - Kayla Blake Elliott - Greg Baker Chris - Timothy Davis-Reed Dave - Bernard Hocke Will - Ron Ostrow
Production designer, Tho. E. Azzari; camera, Peter Smokler; editor, Janet Ashikaga; music, W. G. Snuffy Walden; sound, Larry LaSota; casting, Bonnie Zane, Paula Rosenberg. 30 MINS.
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