It absolutely, positively, could not rain at Indian Wells.
That was about all I knew about Sports Night when on approximately March 10, 2000, I tuned in to what would be one of its last episodes (and one of my favorites), entitled "Draft Day, Part I: It Can't Rain At Indian Wells."
I didn't know Jeremy was trying to get fired because he didn't want to be in hot water with Natalie; I didn't know Dan was paid less than Casey for doing the same job and hated it; I didn't know anything about Dana's infatuation with buying pointless objects. I'd know all these things eventually, as I became a rabid fan; I just didn't know them then.
I'd discovered the series by accident, when TV Guide named it "The Best Show You're Not Watching" with a cover story in the March 7-14, 2000 issue. I'd been bored that day and read the article, and it sounded somewhat interesting (as a sports nut and a television guru, the two concepts coming together was quite the combination for me personally). I also tended to take stock in what show gained the honor, as previous winners had included my beloved Homicide: Life on the Street, a show of immaculate quality. Thus was I driven to beg my mother to let me stay up late, grab the remote and turn on this supposedly exalted show about a sports show.
It was an experience.
I don't say this lightly, but it was an experience to be watching Sports Night for the first time. There was something in its smart approach, its fast-talking-but-moving-faster-through-all-these-corridors pace, its vibrant characters, quirky dialogue, mazelike set, fresh acting and even the music- done by a guy I didn't know that well, W.G. Snuffy Walden.
Coming to the show, I had almost a blank slate where the names and faces were concerned. I'd always liked Felicity Huffman (ask from where I know her and I couldn't tell you), and the awesome Robert Guillaume, one of my personal role models, was beyond excellent. But Josh Charles, Sabrina Lloyd, Peter Krause, Joshua Malina, Aaron Sorkin, Tommy Schlamme Ð I didn't know any of them yet. In the end, they would become my best friends.
I come from an atypically difficult existence of an average teenager in an average town. But running beneath the surface are harder things. I have a disability caused by my premature birth, and it has caused complications that have left lasting effects on my social and emotional well-being. I've also tended to be out to save the world, looking at things from an idealistic standpoint that often is hurt by the realism of living in a hard world. When I came to the series, I hadn't yet gone on to the grand things I would, and I didn't have a lot of friends or as much self-respect as I should have. I was beginning to doubt myself. But Sports Night became the agent of change. I fell in love with the characters, I cried, I smiled, I laughed, I lived. I felt as if these were old friends, or the people I could be, something like your older sibling's cool friends that you hang out with more than your own friends. I half expected to be able to walk into Anthony's and right into Casey McCall.
Not too long after the series aired what would be its final episodes, I was accepted to a prestigious summer school for the arts. It was there after watching Sports Night that I decided to change my mind and commit myself to a career as a writer and producer in television, something I'd only loved but never sought to do until then. Since then, I have written, acted in, and/or directed 29 films, and written and produced 3 television series as head of my own production company, including the critically acclaimed Project Vincennes (2002), part of which is an entire discussion on Ntozake Nelson and how the pilot of Sports Night represents all that is right with television. I also made some of the best friends and memories of my life at that school. I owe everyone behind Sports Night, then, for the inspiration to follow my heart and the idea that Dan Rydell might be just around the corner.
"The greatest thing you can say about a series," wrote Brian Ford Sullivan, "is that it makes you excited about life." As it did for him, Sports Night made me excited about life. It changed my life. The attitude and skill of Aaron Sorkin gave guidance and direction to my own writing, which never fully developed into the success it has until 2000, leaving me with two successful television series ventures of my own both more or less inspired by Sorkin. The cast worked their way into a special place in my heart; I lived and died with their subsequent successes as I had theirs at CSC. In a time when I looked at a career as something to pay the bills while I wrote novels, I found the dream of being the executive producer of a television show, a showrunner, just like Dana. It made me wish I had best friends like Casey, and it made me realize that while I move like Natalie, at heart, I'm a lot like Dan.
The passing of Homicide in 1998 had left me without The Show Ð the one program that becomes a part of my life without a doubt. Sports Night became that show. And as I cried for Homicide, I remember crying for Sports Night for a good twenty minutes when it finally hit me that I wouldn't be able to hold it in my hands anymore. But for a brief, shining, fleeting moment of everything I've ever wanted out of life, it was mine.
Most people I speak to don't understand why I'm not happy, why I'm so nostalgic that I'll randomly go back to those 45 episodes, when The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's other series, is still on TV. And I do love West Wing with a passion for some of the same reasons I loved its predecessor. But it's not Sports Night. The fact that I just thought about Marty Scheinbaum when I typed the word "predecessor" tells me that. The intrepid staffers of CSC were Sorkin's first, and in my mind, his best. It's not that I don't love Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Leo McGarry. It's just that I love Dan Rydell, Natalie Hurley and Isaac Jaffee more. I think, looking at it now, West Wing is almost too impersonal. At its heart is the nation, national crises, major international repercussions. Sports Night was a close-knit group of people in a small environment that could be anywhere, trying to live their lives. I knew them better. I always felt as if it was a familiar place I was coming into. That is really the magic of it to me Ð that it felt as if I was, through some extension of belief for half an hour, part of these people's lives.
I eventually ordered the entire series run from a video production place in Virginia as soon as it came out. I couldn't do without it. I still pop a tape in when I feel the heartache, on whenever I feel down, or worthless, or simply in need of some lifting. And every time I feel as wonderful as I did then, better about myself, better about the world. I feel like myself again. With that feeling in mind, I still watch on Comedy Central when my show is on, because it's my show. "My show is on," I'll often say to myself, and I know exactly what that means.
It was a magical time, that first go-around, which I like to call "that Sports Night summer". Together with a friend of mine that I converted into a fan, I'd quote lines from the series, discuss my favorite moments, count down the days from one Tuesday to the next. As people we knew learned of our fanaticism, they started offering their own comments, tuning in themselves. We were able to change a small portion of their lives. I'll not forget how my friend and I started walking and talking down hallways like Casey and Dana, figuring out where the Christmas tree would go in Dan and Casey's office, talking over fanfic and writing our own. That summer in itself altered everything and made everything after it possible in ways I still am cognizant of.
I can't and won't shake the impressions, experience and sense of true mortality-slash-immortality given to me by a handful of people with a drive and a dream. I'm still known to think about Sports Night whenever anything remotely connected comes up, and I'm unable to keep a streak of quirky behavior down. When I was in charge of my technical theatre class my junior year, my favorite phrase was "Thirty seconds back" as I timed them in and out of our lunch break. I'm still known for saying "Good show, everybody" when I walk out of the theater before an impending performance. My heart skips a beat when I turn on my computer and hear Kim say "Five minutes to air É first team to the studio." I can still finish any quote, name any episode by the teaser, compose a Natalie costume (I played Sabrina Lloyd in a class Celebrity Wheel of Fortune project) with ID badge, and rifle through a collection of scripts and transcripts that drive my teachers insane. That junior year, I happened upon the nickname of Thespis. As a drama freak, I understood its origins, but what I really thought about was flying poultry. In many, many respects, I still am and always will be the person that I was in the summer of Sports Night, just a little older, wiser, and grander yet sadder since the fall.
Today, I listened to the song "On The Outside" by Sheryl Crow and realized it defines me more than anything else. I'm back, in parts, to the state I was, waiting for the next Dan Rydell and Casey McCall to find me, but it won't happen, because there's only one. In that summer, I was never on the outside. I was part of that network, that show, that group of people. And that was the truth of it.
"It's a television show," is the common response when I've spilled this rhetoric out to somebody again. "You're crazy to care at all, let alone care that much."
But when I listen to the laugh lines that made me smile, or watch Josh Charles delivering Dan's apology that made me cry, or catch the look in Peter Krause's eyes, or think about how the Miller Genuine Draft car did in the Winston Cup, everything in me screams to disagree. When I am asked to apologize for my opinion, or think about myself and Ntozake Nelson, or simply see them all happy in the presence of hope and victory, I don't think I'm so crazy.
I don't think I'm crazy at all.
I think that I'd be crazy not to be there as everybody stood up for Natalie vis-ˆ-vis Christian Patrick, as Isaac's daughter gave birth to Matthew, as Rebecca came and went, as Play of the Year was debated, as Casey insisted Dan could do it without him, as the battles were fought and Casey was reminded the show was really a team effort, and even through that ludicrous Starland Vocal Band song 'Afternoon Delight.'
I think that I'd be crazy not to smile when Casey and Dana shared their magical first kiss, not to laugh when Dan bought Dana wine and spackle, not to cry when Dan and Casey met at Anthony's at the end of "Shane" or hugged at the end of "April Is The Cruelest Month," not to exult at Isaac's editorial about the Tennessee Western incident, not to smirk at Peter Krause's TV Guide Award acceptance speech, not to tell Danny that Rebecca was not the end-all of his world, not to run to the paper every day for new word, not to understand the victories and defeats, the joy and the grief, not to understand them.
I think that I'd be crazy not to be in love with Dan, Casey, Dana, Natalie, Jeremy, Isaac, Rebecca, Allyson, Sam, Sally, Charlie, Bobbi, Tina, Abby, Kyle, Dave, Chris, Will, Elliot, Kim, Ntozake Nelson, Cliff Gardner, Orlando Rojas and all the others, all their gifts, all their memories, all the dreams and goals and memories they helped me make, the turning of the tide in their season.
Their championship season.
Their miracle season.
After all, all it took for me to get this far was knowing that it finally, completely, totally could not rain at Indian Wells.