(Edited to change/remove dead links.)
You can have M*A*S*H, I Love Lucy, Cheers, Seinfeld, or any of the other contenders in the race for greatest sitcom ever if I can take Sports Night, the ABC series created by Aaron Sorkin, which ran from 1998 to 2000. It was Sorkin’s first series, in which he honed the dense and speedy style of television that flowered fully on The West Wing. If you can keep up with them (and not everyone can), his shows make for incredibly entertaining television that holds up over multiple viewings. And technique aside, Sorkin’s ability to create interesting characters is unparalleled—even his peripheral characters tend to be more fully drawn than the leads on many other programs. Sports Night was set behind the scenes of a nightly ESPN-style sports highlight show, but as the network promos had it at the time, “it’s a show about sports that isn’t really about sports at all.” Instead, it focused on the professional and personal relationships among the anchors, producers, executives, and assistants who made the show. It was frequently hilarious, but it could also be touching and thought-provoking—and, like its dialogue, would occasionally whiz from silly to serious at a pace that made some critics wince, but it’s one of the reasons Sorkin fans dig his work.
Sorkin frequently used pop songs to punctuate storylines, everything from Susan Tedeschi’s “It Hurts So Bad” to “Afternoon Delight.” An episode titled “Eli’s Coming,” broadcast for the first time 10 years ago tonight, is set on a Saturday afternoon, when the Sports Night crew is anchoring college basketball, but all is not well on the set and behind the scenes. Producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) is in trouble with co-anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) over an incident a few days earlier in which Casey felt she inappropriately placed her personal life ahead of her professional responsibilities. Co-anchor Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) can’t figure out why the woman he’s involved with is at the office on a Saturday, or why one of the other anchors keeps claiming he slept with her in Spain when he’s never been to Spain. And Isaac Jaffe, the show’s executive producer (Robert Guillaume), is late getting back from an out-of-town trip, and nobody knows where he is. As the complications multiply, the following scene ensues:
DAN: There’s a strangeness about this day. Eli’s coming.
DAN: From the Three Dog Night song . . . Eli’s something bad. A darkness.
CASEY: “Eli’s coming, hide your heart girl.” Eli’s an inveterate womanizer. I think you’re getting the song wrong.
DAN: I know I’m getting the song wrong, but when I first heard it, that’s what I thought it meant. Things stay with you that way. . . . They say it’s always calmest before a storm, but that’s not true. I’m a serious sailor. It isn’t calm before a storm. Stuff happens. . . . Eli’s coming.
Sorkin, who wrote the episode and frequently isolated life’s little truths in quick scenes like this one, is absolutely right: We don’t always hear things the way they are intended, and right or wrong, those interpretations stay with us. A song can become a recurring nightmare if the circumstances are right. And by the end of “Eli’s Coming”—the best episode in the history of the series—Dan’s fears are confirmed.
The episode is on YouTube in three parts; part 1 is here and part 2 is here. Dan’s speech about “Eli’s Coming” begins at about the one-minute mark of part 2. The payoff is in part 3 starting at the 6:15 mark. But watch the whole thing. You won’t be sorry. (Links are dead, alas. Rent the episode online or buy the DVD. I’m telling you, you won’t be sorry.
I bought our first DVD player a few years back when Sports Night first came out on DVD. Last fall, it was rereleased in a new 10th-anniversary package that replaces the original bare-bones release. Even though I’ve seen the entire series all the way through at least four times, it’s still a blast to watch. No other show on TV has ever made me want to crawl through the screen and join its world more than Sports Night does. Like right here, from the first-season episode “Dear Louise.”
“And in that moment, Dan was reminded once again why he wanted to write in the first place. It’s for the same reason anybody does anything: To impress women.” True dat.