Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has been enjoying success on both the big and small screen for decades, but his career high clearly came last year with The Social Network. Sorkin, thanks to A Few Good Men, The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War, had already been a household name for movie geeks, but the explosion of “that Facebook movie” made him into a household name for non-geeks alike.
But before Sorkin was making appearances on 30 Rock and Oprah, even before he made The West Wing, he was busy fine toning his walk-and-talk writing on Sports Night, one of the best TV series you’ve probably never seen completely. That’s okay, though, because now the complete show, which only lasted two seasons, is now available for streaming on Netflix. If you were at all impressed by Sorkin’s knack for rapid fire dialogue in The Social Network, this is a must watch series.
Who Made It: Aaron Sorkin, obviously. This was his first TV show and his first produced script since The American President. The show originally aired on ABC between 1998 and 2000, and enjoyed a brief life on late night cable syndication in the early ‘00s (which was actually when I first started watching it).
Who’s In It: Sports Night boasts one of the most cohesive ensemble comedy casts since Cheers, filled with the likes of Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), Josh Charles (Dead Poets Society), Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives), Joshua Malina (The West Wing), Sabrina Lloyd (Sliders), Robert Guillaume (the excellent voice actor), Teri Polo (Meet the Parents), William H. Macy (Fargo) and a whole lot more.
What’s It About: Sports Night is a walk-and-talk comedy (with dashes of drama) about the behind-the-scenes antics of the fictitious sports commentary show, Sports Night. Basically, it’s about the cast and crew of a wannabe ESPN show, their lives, their relationships, and their love of sports.
Why You Should Watch It: The best, must succinct endorsement of Sports Night I can give is that I unabashedly love the show and yet I watch zero sports and never turn on ESPN. Sorkin’s writing is just so damned sharp, his wit so exacting and his knack for making hurts swell with feel good endings, that no love of sports is required to enjoy it. If you like people, flaws and all; if you appreciate good writing, this is a show for you, plain and simple.
The cast is so extraordinary, their interplay so organic that it blows my mind that they haven’t all become A-listers in the TV world. Peter Krause has of course enjoyed plenty of praise and steady work, having followed SN with Six Feet Under and Parenthood, and Felicity Huffman has been earning her fair share of ratings as a part of Desperate Housewives, but the rest of the cast have pretty much all resigned to jumping from mid-level TV show to TV show. And to think that asshats like Charlie Sheen enjoyed nearly $2 million per episode for crap like Two and a Half Men. It hurts my brain just thinking about it.
The first few episodes of the show are crippled by a network-mandated laugh track, but aside from that goof, Sports Night is the rare kind of TV show that brings its A game every episode without fail. There are no ups and downs, no silly plot threads that are drawn out too long. Everything in it just... works. It just works. Granted, with only two seasons to live, Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes sports show didn’t live long enough to be brought down by its own formula, but that just makes it all the more precious. Had I been a fan of the show when it aired, I probably would have been pissed about its cancellation, but as it stands right now, two seasons is the perfect length.
Those two seasons were solid enough to provide me with countless scripted conversations and exchanges that I think about often, be they thoughts on the legalization of marijuana, working in the porn industry, having a stroke, or just watching the human spirit push itself to new highs in sports. Sports Night is the kind of perfectly balanced, warming and familiar show I put on for comfort food. Hopefully it’ll be the same for you.
If you grew up on a steady diet of action movies if your bones hardened every time a muscle-bound guy dove away from an explosion in slow motion if you hit puberty the first time you saw the hero of the hour bed his scantily clad damsel in distress then it’s impossible to resist the allure of a movie like The Expendables. It’s the superband version of an action movie. It was created by an action star its cast consists almost exclusively of action stars and the only reason it exists is to put a smile on the face of action fans. And invariably it will do just that.
The question is how wide one’s smile will be. The answer depends on how forgiving one is willing to be of The Expendables' faults and there are many. It’s a little slow-going at first the characters are very thinly defined some of the acting is spotty and on the production front Sylvester Stallone’s knack for action scenes is thrown under the bus by a ton of visual shortcuts (CGI blood being perhaps the most egregious) that belie the film’s obvious low budget. That said Stallone’s knack for gory ultraviolent action is indeed so strong his mind so tuned to the quirks and cliches that make action movies beloved despite their faults that The Expendables kicks more than enough ass by the time credits roll to be worthwhile beyond just the novelty of seeing Stallone Statham Li Lundgren Austin Rourke Couture Crews Willis and Schwarzenegger all under one explosion-filled roof.
That was actually my biggest concern at the offset of the film that the only ace up star/co-writer/director Stallone’s ripped sleeve was his cast but the best thing about The Expendables is that it could have worked with a roster composed entirely of no-name actors. It’s fantastic to see some of these action movie titans go head to head (particularly so in the case of Lundgren) but the headliners surprisingly neither make nor break the movie. The script which involves a gang of mercenaries overthrowing a South American dictator who has become a puppet of a rogue CIA agent isn’t particularly strong but no one goes to an action movie expecting it to be a David Mamet-scripted battle of wits. The story just needs a firm enough framework to allow for enough scenarios for our heroes to punch kick stab shoot and explode an army of bad guys. To that end Expendables could have been given to a cast and crew of newcomers and still stomped in tons of face.
What actually hurts the film the most is that it is filled with veterans and promises of a return to old-school action an era where the only thing bigger than the heroes’ muscles was the body count left in his wake. The only thing wrong with the body count in The Expendables is that it takes too long to begin piling up whereas the rest of the movie feels too small too amateur hour considering its cast of pros. Nu Image the chief studio financing Stallone’s grand endeavor is known primarily for making low-budget straight-to-video movies; sadly The Expendables isn’t going to shake that image any time soon.
There is a disappointing amount of poorly-rendered CGI blood and flames throughout the film which completely goes against the “do it old-school” mindset one expects from all involved. It’s hardly unwatchable but there are times where the look of the film brings to mind the Syfy channel and as any brave soul who has ever wandered into a Syfy Original Movie knows all too well that is rarely ever a good thing.
However even with lackluster production values The Expendables still manages to be a wild throat-slashing elbow-dropping grenade-throwing trigger-pulling and limb-dismembering good time. The last forty-five minutes alone are packed with more carnage than most action movies today can dream of delivering throughout their entire run time. The slow beginning gives way to a glorious orgy of death that generates a body count that would warrant UN intervention were it to have occurred in the real world. And since fictional armies getting absolutely obliterated by a fictional team of the manliest men on the planet is all anyone really requires from The Expendables it’s easy to turn your back on the few obstacles that stand in the way of that holy goal.