To follow up on my earlier post about Sports Night and why I’m not a big fan of the show: after I wrote that post, I re-watched “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,” one of the most acclaimed episodes of the show, won a Humanitas award, the whole deal. And it is a well-made episode. But the story beats of the main plot are, to me, the kind of thing that was characteristic of “very special” sitcom episodes, and I’m not talking about good sitcom episodes either. It breaks down as follows:
– A Big Important Issue is raised.
– Everyone expects Isaac to speak out about the Big Important Issue, but he doesn’t want to because he’s afraid it might cost him his job.
– Isaac decides it’s more important to stand up for what he believes than to play it safe, and makes a big public speech about the Big Important Issue.
– Everybody in the office bursts into applause and congratulates themselves for dealing with the Big Important Issue.
This basic story has been done before, and in essence it’s impossible to do this story without following those basic story beats. But this episode of Sports Night doesn’t really offer much of anything between those beats, to shake things up a little or at least fool us into thinking we don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s just those story points, unadorned; in one scene, Isaac is making a speech about how cautious he is and how he doesn’t want to speak out, and then he’s going on the air to speak out. Why? Because the show’s almost over and it’s time for him to do the right thing. But I have to think that if Aaron Sorkin had been writing this story for, say, The Facts of Life, the producers would have asked him to give Tootie a more direct, immediate reason for changing her mind and speaking out against racism. Sorkin appears to think that a character needs no motivation other than the fact that he’s a good guy and good guys always do the right thing in the end, and I just think that’s weak writing.