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.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.