Wednesday, October 08, 2014

I Support #SportsNight2014

Something wonderful happened on Twitter last Friday night.

That something was #SportsNight2014.

If you follow my writer persona, you may have noticed me retweeting some of my favorites:


And speaking of Fifty Shades of Grey, did you know that I, too, have dabbled in Sports Night fan fiction? It's true! Oh, it was many years ago, when I was a tender and callow fellow, but I still love my crazy pitch for the 9/11 episode of Sports Night—shown below.

(I'm only going to reprint the relevant portions of my original blog post from nearly twelve years ago, since many of my opinions have matured since then—in particular, I've become much more bullish on fanfic.)

Here's what I dreamed up on January 28, 2003:

My girlfriend [now my wife :) -CKL] gave me the Sports Night DVD box set as a Christmas present, and we watched the pilot episode last night. I noticed several things that I had forgotten about the show. The most heartbreaking was the opening shot, which had been missing from the syndicated reruns: the World Trade Center towers glittering in the night. [Note: that omission may not have actually happened, but it's what I remembered at the time. -CKL]

Sports Night is set in the studios of a fictional cable television network, CSC, presumably located in the World Trade Center in Manhattan. (I don't think this is ever actually mentioned in the show, but let's run with it for now.) And presumably, Comedy Central cut out that opening shot after September 11, 2001. I don't blame them for doing it. The show only ran for two seasons, from 1998 to 2000, and it would be pretty depressing to think, while watching the reruns, that those characters had perished later, when the towers collapsed...

So here's the Sports Night fanfic-- no, let's call it the lost episode, the one that Aaron Sorkin never wrote-- that I'd like to read. It's the September 11th episode, which I'm sure he would have done if the show had still been on the air. He did one for The West Wing, and Sports Night is set in Manhattan. In the World Trade Center.

It wouldn't be a flashback episode. That would be too easy, too simple a tearjerker: look how happy we were before! No, I think Sorkin's smarter than that. It would be a "bottle show," just like the 9/11 episode of West Wing-- set in a single room, or at least only on the standing sets for the show. No location shooting. Just talking.

I imagine it's in a coffee shop near the WTC. Maybe next to Battery Park. It's just after noon on September 11, 2001. The towers have collapsed, but there's still dust in the air. The Sports Night staff began evacuating right after the first plane hit the north tower. They think everybody got out, but they've been separated. Only a few of them made it to this coffee shop. Isaac, Casey, Jeremy, Natalie, some of the tech crew. Dan, Dana, and the rest are somewhere else. Nobody wants to say "missing."

This is Casey's story. His show, and the network which aired it, had been in danger of folding just last year. And then a stranger in a bar told Dana about coaxial cable, and CSC was bought by a holding company named Quo Vadimus. The network and the show were both saved. Jeremy and Natalie got back together. Isaac had recovered from his stroke. Things were looking up.

That was last year. That was this morning. And now, less than four hours later, the Sports Nights studio is part of a pile of rubble in lower Manhattan, and the two most important people in Casey's life-- Dan and Dana-- are missing. But nobody wants to say "missing." They say, "They're not here," or "They're somewhere else," or "I don't know."

It's all about the words, of course. That's why I love Aaron Sorkin. It's all about the dialogue.

Eventually, Casey blows up and says it: "They're missing!" That sets people off. Jeremy rants about Islam and how Arabs hate Jews, until Isaac delivers a disarming insight on race relations drawn from his rich life experience. The techies, still in shock, supply infrequent commentary on the sporadic news coverage coming from the television. The TV breaks; they try to fix it. Comic relief.

Emergency workers show up looking for water. The teenage kid behind the counter insists on charging them full price for the bottled water-- over $100. Casey watches the conversation, then finally loses it when the rescue workers can't come up with the cash. (Phones are down; credit card authorizations won't go through.) He goes ballistic on the kid and nearly punches him until he realizes how scared and confused the kid is. He doesn't know what to do. He's just a kid. All he knows is what the manager tells him.

Casey pays for the bottled water and helps the workers carry it out. The TV's back on. People are talking. Natalie confesses to Jeremy that she's scared of what's happened, and what might happen next, but she's more scared of how much he hates the Palestinians, and she can't understand any of it. Dialogue ensues. People are trying to use their cell phones, with varying degrees of success.

Natalie's phone rings. It's Dana's number, but it gets disconnected. Casey returns, grabs the phone, tries to call Dana. Nothing. He wants to go out and look for them. Others remind him that they agreed to meet here, everyone knows where this place is, what if they come back while he's gone? As if to support their argument, another one of the techies-- maybe Will-- arrives, bloodied, dusty, limping, barely coherent.

Important note here: this isn't ER or Third Watch. No spurting blood, no camera flying around as a screaming victim gets pulled out of an ambulance. The show isn't about physical injury or damage. It's not about the pain. It's about how we deal with the pain. It's about how much we want to say, and how little we are able to say.

Someone will, of course, make a joke at some point about how similar the names "Dan" and "Dana" are. It will snowball into something ridiculous, possibly involving sex-change operations or maybe just wigs, and people will laugh themselves silly.

Everyone in the coffee shop watches President Bush on TV, speaking from Barksdale AFB, explaining how security measures are being taken and trying to articulate what nobody can. The phrase "cowardly acts" sparks some discussion.

The show ends with no sign of Dan or Dana.

That's an episode I'd like to see.

Savvy readers will recognize my "ripped from the headlines" repurposing of the actual incident in which a New York City Starbucks outlet charged 9/11 rescue workers $130 for three cases of water. If I actually scripted this thing, I'd use that as the thematic linchpin. Maybe I will use it, or a modified and not legally actionable retelling, somewhere else someday. (This is where you comment and tell me someone has already done it better than I ever could have.)

I like what Sorkin did on West Wing and what he's doing on Newsroom, but I LOVE what he did with The Social Network because it's the closest he's ever come to recapturing the magic of Sports Night. I do appreciate what he attempted to do with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it (like West Wing and Newsroom) got bogged down in dealing with the actual work being done in the workplace in question.

Sports Night and Social Network were able to soar because we (the audience) never had to care that much about actual sports or software engineering. The important thing was seeing how the characters dealt with their jobs. We needed to know that the work wasn't life-or-death every damn day, and we also needed a conceptual air-gap to buffer us from having to understand how live television production or dynamic web sites actually work. (To put it in terms of Pixar story rule #4: we care more about the "One day ___" part than the "Every day, ___" part.)

It's not about the job. It's always about the people.


Curtis
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