Tuesday, May 18, 1999
How much do you really know about Joey from Friends? Over countless episodes, all that’s been revealed is that he’s not very bright, he’s a short-term hit with women, and he’s not a very good actor.
In all the years we’ve spent with him, we’ve rarely glimpsed a deeper side. Likeable but stupid. The same superficiality is true of the other characters – Monica (fat in high-school, control freak), Phoebe (ditsy but caring), Ross (something with dinosaurs – yeah, right), Rachel (um . . .).
Chandler has a bit more going on, but in a curious way the lack of any real depth to the characters doesn’t matter at all. If we knew more about them, it might just get in the way of the jokes. We’re given enough information to set up the gags and make them consistent, but no more.
However likeable these and other sit-com characters are, I can never imagine them walking down the street in my town (although quite often I can’t imagine myself walking down the street in my town).
You might think this reliance on sketchy characters is limited to half-hour comedies, but consider Ally McBeal. The first season was great – fast moving and quirky with a lightness of touch that sterner dramas lack.
But currently the fantasy moments grate, and the parallels between the cases they try and the private lives of the lawyers is becoming a little too cute. At the heart of this is that beyond their catchphrases and signature weirdnesses, the characters are pretty thin. Anyway, bygones.
Compared to the shallowness of these characters, and the increasingly overblown earnestness of ER (who knew I’d miss George Clooney so much?), one show really stands out – Sports Night, a half-hour comedy that’s just finished its first season on ABC.
Prospects of it making it across the Atlantic might not be good, since it’s set in the studio of a US sports TV show (ESPN in all but name), but the show is funny, clever and rewarding.
It accurately describes the appeal and wonder of sport (we have to see why all these clever people are devoting their lives to it), but it’s not really about sport.
In the same way as Seinfeld, it’s not really about anything at all – but whereas Seinfeld worked with ridiculous plot twists, astute observations and a healthy streak of cruelty (’no hugging, no learning’), Sports Night is more understated and has a lot more heart.
It’s so subtle that the laugh track the network apparently insisted on including sounds out of place, as the show’s drama meets Ally McBeal as that so-called drama heads the other way into farce.
Sports Night works because of the clever, witty, slightly spiky characters brought to life by great ensemble playing. Anchors Casey and Dan are not just likeable, they’re believable, as are Dana, Jeremy and the others.
The setting calls for competitiveness and long hours, and so we see characters that are very good at what they do, but are concomitantly missing parts of themselves.
Dana can produce a bang-up show every night under ridiculous amounts of pressure, but she can’t see her boyfriend’s a jerk, while Casey is smart and charming, he’s also hugely stupid pretty often.
We laugh at the characters’ weaknesses while still respecting them, because we see that at heart they’re good people trying to do the best they can. Dan’s handling of his relationship with a woman who decided to go back to her husband was exemplary, but we got to see how hard it was for him to do the right thing.
So as well as the sharp dialogue and perfect pacing, we watch because of the warmth we feel for the characters. Not since Northern Exposure have we seen such a rewarding and smart show masquerading as a light comedy.
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, May 1999)