While watching Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s 1998 witty, flitty sitcom, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching something forbidden, something no one born after the year 2000 should see. It was a chilling fragment of the 20th century hiding under the innocent guise of a sitcom, leaving me shaking in my little Gen-Z boots. I’ve got, as most college kids do, this sort of intoxicating youth stored inside of me, and I wasted it to watch all 45 fleeting episodes of this time-capsular workplace dramedy created before I was brought into this world. But fear not—I endured this relic of ‘90s sensibilities for a good cause! All of this was for the benefit of my hero, the inimitable Josh Malina. Welcome back to Oeuvre Reviews, a series reviewing every piece of content Joshua Malina (who is C-List at best, but really, very cute) has been in.
Sports Night, aside from reminding me of my own youth and naïveté, tickled my fancy and scratched my itch for more Joshua Malina content. He plays Jeremy Goodwin, one of several 30-somethings that work for the eponymous sports commentary show, bringing bumbling charm to the workplace shenanigans in the office of the nation’s third-place cable sports broadcast. Through the lens of the eponymous show-within-a-show, Sports Night follows an ensemble cast through personal and professional woes in the world of late-night television. It’s funny, if formulaic in the way all sitcoms are, impeded by a laugh track that thankfully disappears by the second season. It’s poignant without being cloying and funny without being grating, a demonstration of good old-fashioned situational comedy and an exceptional vehicle for Josh Malina’s adorkable demeanor.
Malina (and I guess the rest of the cast) does an excellent job pulling off Sorkinesque mechanisms. The walk-and-talk, the poetic speeches, the insufferably clever dialogue—all are handled with ease. Josh Charles and Peter Krause star as anchors Dan Rydell and Casey McCall respectively, providing boyish charm and eye candy aplenty to accompany Malina’s stunning visage. Felicity Huffman (yes, the one who bought her daughter’s SAT score) gives a Golden-Globe-nominated performance as producer Dana Whitaker, bringing bite and spunk to a character who could have easily gotten wrapped up in her will-they/won’t-they plot with Casey. This tropey romantic subplot, accompanied by an on-again/off-again between Jeremy and a fellow employee, showcases the show’s tendency to fall back into cliché. However, the multiple love confessions out of Malina will serve as my personal daydream fodder for weeks and make the whole thing worth it.
I would be remiss not to mention Robert Guillaume’s performance as managing editor Isaac Jaffe. He shines as the sort of boss/father figure that is archetypal in Sorkin’s work, playing the sage advisor with a charming grin and quip at every turn. While filming, Guillaume suffered a real-life stroke that Sorkin wrote into the show. Both writer and actor handle it with care, creating a touching subplot that has clear roots in reality. By and large, the show addresses sensitive topics with care and compassion. There are multiple subplots about drug abuse, divorce, depression, and various other issues that start with “D” and remind me how crushingly young and naïve I am. It rarely becomes preachy—aside from a slight self-congratulatory tone on his own perceived wokeness, Sorkin manages to portray the realities of adult life with grace.
All that said, there are a lot of problematic ideas about women. Like, a lot. Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), Malina’s fictional girlfriend, is controlling and scatterbrained, and Dana exhibits Hot Mess syndrome at nearly every turn. The starring women are competent, complex, and professional. They have all the hallmarks of strong female characters—but they can’t help but fall into stereotypical behaviors that paint them as “crazy” or emotionally stunted. There’s also a poorly-executed arc wherein Jeremy dates a porn star (Paula Marshall)—and boy, is sex work vilified! It’s not as bad as it could be, given, again, that the show takes place in the late ‘90s, but an entire episode devoted to keeping her profession a secret just…doesn’t sit right. As I said, it’s time-capsular. Sports Night takes all of the good (big blocky phones, dad rock, etc.) and bad (sexism, racism, ugly ties) things about what I assume the ‘90s were like and wraps them up into one entertaining Malina-vehicle.
Josh Malina, of course, is the best part. He’s delightfully awkward, inexpressibly cute, and delivers the line “I told many, many people” with a deadpan that rivals Colin Firth’s delivery of the same in Mamma Mia. His character, along with the rest, is multi-faceted and instantly lovable. It makes me regret not being born just a few years earlier, so that I may have been alive while Malina was executing this wonderful performance. And the way he looks in those casual-Friday-jeans… let’s just say, folks, that I’ll be rewatching Sports Night a few times—and I promise you it’s not for the sports.