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A Few Good "Sports Nights"

There's a series of commercials for a shampoo -- maybe you've seen them. It's usually two square-jawed fellows in a supermarket or in an elevator or packing their suitcases for a big weekend up at the ski lodge. The first guy -- a bright-eyed, eager-beaver kind of Joe -- literally brims with enthusiasm for the delicious possibilities that life holds. He's particularly keen on his chances of meeting and, no doubt, wooing a multitude of young ladies.

That is, until his pal -- the cynical, world-weary straight shooter of the pair -- points out his unchecked dandruff problem, helpfully underscoring how utterly gross a dry scalp is in the eyes of your garden-variety chick. And then, as if to bring his chum's humiliation to a rousing denouement, Mr. Straight Shooter clasps his hand on the dandruff-besotted shoulder of his sad-sack friend to offer one last bit of patronizing advice: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

There's something profoundly upsetting to me about those commercials. What kind of friend -- no matter how well-meaning -- berates a pal's hygiene in the middle of a crowded grocery store? I mean, one minute you're a confident man about town with visions of doe-eyed snow bunnies making eyes at you during the upcoming weekend at the ski lodge. A few snide quips about your dry scalp later, and you're a quivering mass of recriminations and self-doubt. All just to sell a couple more bottles of shampoo.

Still, it's a good point. You really never do get a second chance to make a first impression. And that's particularly true in the cutthroat world of TV.

Us folks in the critiquing business are a cruel and demanding lot. We see so many bad TV shows year after year that when a new series shows the first sign of weakness, human nature being what it is, we tend to pounce on the body, pound the life out of it and send a condolences card to the widow.

Kill it, we'll scream. Kill it now! Or else it will grow big and strong and we'll be stuck with this banal tedium like we were with Wings!

Because in this business, silence equals complicity.

There's only one problem with that school of thought: The first few episodes of even the best TV shows aren't usually very good. Take the pilot episode -- it's often a forced march through plot exposition, back story and introduction to characters that are two dimensional at best. It takes a TV show about a year -- sometimes two -- to flesh out the characters, gain momentum and grow enough legs to carry it beyond a premise that sounded decent over a plate of sweet and sour chicken at last year's pitch meeting.

Which brings me to Sports Night.

When the show about a fictitious cable sports network debuted last fall, it couldn't have gotten off to a less auspicious start. The pilot was a ham-fisted hodgepodge of predictable set-ups and stagy resolutions. It soldered together a fistful of cliches, from a sniveling network suit so devious all he was missing was a black hat and twirling mustache to a burned-out sports anchor who, in the episode's climactic scene, recaptures his lost passion for sports and comes to terms with his messy divorce by watching a one-time South African dissident mount an improbable victory in a high-profile track meet.


Add to that dubious mix ABC's decision to saddle the show with a laugh track -- thus taking the pilot's crisp, tightly written dialogue and slowing that one saving grace into a tedious crawl -- and Sports Night looked like it was on its way to the showers before it even got out of the first inning.

And yet... sometimes it's better to hold your fire, even long after you've seen the whites of their eyes. Sports Night's first few outings were lackluster, but there was something -- a spark of ingenuity, a dash of cleverness -- that kept the long knives sheathed and the TeeVee jackals at bay.

Credit that crisp dialogue I mentioned earlier. Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin -- and it better be that "The American President" made you physically ill -- but the writer of "A Few Good Men" has a gift for the gab. The dialogue uses interplay, clever repetition, sentences that spill over into another character's lines... it's simply a pleasure to listen to. You can't just turn on Sports Night, disengage your brain and expect to be entertained. As with some of the best written shows in recent years -- NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show, the first five seasons or so of Homicide -- the home viewer had best follow along. And that alone may have kept me watching while the cast and crew of Sports Night found their footing.

The show also wins points for trying to stake out new territory in a cookie-cutter sitcom world that runs the danger of being populated entirely by Friends knock-offs. And I don't say that just because Sports Night tries to blend to comedy and drama into a fine puree the way M*A*S*H once did.

No, Sports Night gets the gold star when it takes a stab at tackling issues that may be of consequence to you and me. In one particularly strong episode, the executive producer of the fictional cable TV show, played by the super-fine Felicity Huffman, found herself at odds trying to balance a burgeoning romance with her career-oriented lifestyle. The crux of a particularly impassioned speech at the end of the episode: can you have a partner who understands your life's passion as well that passion itself? Can you have both, or does it have to wind up being one or the other? And how do you choose?

A little bit more weighty than whether Ross and Rachel are ever going to "do it," no?

That's not to say that Sports Night is the best new show of the year. That accolade probably falls to King of Queens -- not the most innovative of shows, but what it does, it does exceedingly well.

Nor has Sports Night righted its past wrongs. We're, what, a dozen and a half episodes into the season, and the same three words still enter my mind when I think of Josh Charles and Peter Krause, the show's two leads: interchangeable face plates. Someone -- Aaron Sorkin, another writer, the key grip, anybody -- will have to inject those two with distinct personalities and do it quick. For now, just use the handy guide I've drawn up for myself: Peter Krause is the guy who's character is reeling from his failed marriage, Josh Charles is the guy who was in "Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead."

Other problems persist as well. Sports Night sometimes falls into the trap of other workplace-based sitcoms, namely that the greatest problem facing companies today is the horniness of their labor force. Some episodes still veer off into the mawkish plot twists that marked the pilot. And, memo to ABC -- lose the laugh track, or I start taking hostages.

Still, it's worth sticking with Sports Night, and not just because the show happens to be critically acclaimed. Usually that label is industry shorthand for "soon to be canceled." But ABC -- going against form when it comes to smothering promising new shows in the crib -- has already renewed Sports Night for next year, ensuring you that any time you invest in the show between now and the season's end won't be wasted.

Instead, you should give Sports Night a chance because the show continues to improve upon itself, and isn't that all we can ask from a TV program? It's not completely there yet... but it's not that far from firing on all cylinders either.

More important, the makers of Sports Night aren't content to settle for what's been done before. In a sitcom world of tart-tongued twentysomethings, wacky neighbors and precocious kids, Sports Night tries to serve up something different. Does it always connect? No. But it's up there at the plate, taking its cuts. If we had more shows doing just that, we'd be living in a golden age.

And the sting of those shampoo commercials wouldn't be quite so bitter.


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