Part Three of Can Any Show Survive Jumping the Shark?


The six-month dating plan.  This phrase should be its own pop-culture phenomenon right alongside jumping the shark, as Aaron Sorkin kicked off the second season of his superb half-hour dramedy about sports that wasn’t really about sports at all with a storyline that thirteen years later still makes me shake my head in wonder.[1]

The first season of Sportsnight is glorious, even with the presence of a pointless and ill-conceived laughtrack.  A primary focus is the (potentially) romantic relationship between Dana and Casey, that classic television trope we’ve seen plenty of times before where the two good-looking leads who are obviously perfect for one another are, through a series of misunderstandings and entanglements kept apart to create dramatic tension.  This sort of thing is done very well in excellent shows like Moonlighting, Castle and The Office.

At the start of season two, Casey finally musters the courage to make his move, punctuated by a kiss, signaling the logical beginning of a dating storyline between the two leads.  Except Sorkin doesn’t want the two characters to date, which is problematic since they’ve functionally professed their love to one another.  An entanglement is needed, perhaps an old fiancée presumed lost in a fiery plane crash moves back to town, or a one-night stand shows up pregnant.[2]  I’m fairly certain anything would have been preferable to Sorkin’s solution – the six-month dating plan.

Here it is, boiled down to the basics.  Dana decides that, for the sake of their impending relationship, Casey should date other women for six months so that when they actually start dating, they’ll have a real chance at a lasting relationship.  If this sounds ridiculously dumb in print, then I’m lowballing how poorly it played on screen.  This was the moment Sportsnight jumped the shark, a crass and silly moment of cringe-inducing artificiality from a show that had to that point beautifully blended drama and comedy with great wit.

I’d be more upset with Sorkin except he resolves the whole mess with such grace and perfection, righting the ship with a resolution that almost makes the whole storyline worthwhile.  Casey is forced by the woman he loves to date other people, and as you would reasonably expect in such a situation, he is not pleased by this and ends up meeting someone he likes who isn’t insane.  Pixlie, as it turns out.  And why shouldn’t he like her?  Pixlie is played by Megan Ward, the lovely actress who hooks up with the pre-frosh in PCU.

Realizing her mistake, Dana goes to Casey, apologizes, tries to make it work, but it’s too late, he’s already moved on.

One of my pet peeves about television is the general lack of consequences that characters face for their actions.  This is often by necessity, because to actually force characters to pay a price for their actions would create change, and most television shows are about creating a formula and then riding that formula to syndication.[3]  This isn’t automatically a bad thing, especially from a sit-com, but there comes a point in drama where progression is crucial to maintaining credibility.  This creates a double-edged sword – to create effective drama you’ve got to push your characters to make choices that enact change (i.e. a character discovers his brother has murdered a homeless man and chooses to help cover it up) but by doing so you’ve fundamentally altered the course of the character and show, risking the existing audience who clearly enjoy the current formula.

The most successful dramatic television (creatively/artistically speaking) then is achieved by creating a premise/formula that inherently allows for characters to develop and change, and to then face and confront the consequences for their actions, not as a choice but as a necessity built into the core structure of the show.[4]  If characters are allowed to operate free from consequence, then it’s not drama, it’s melodrama.  Nothing wrong with a little melodrama, by the way, I think the last season of the original Melrose Place is great, but it’s not going to inspire much repeat viewing.

            Sportsnight allowed for the characters to change, and not always in crowd pleasing ways, by forcing them to accept the consequences of their actions (i.e. Dana acts like an immature teenager and loses the guy because of it, exactly as it would happen 99% of the time in real life).  And it wasn’t just this one storyline, all of the characters on the show were put through the wringer by the time ABC said enough was enough and cancelled the show.  Friendships frayed, relationships fractured, mortality was confronted, breakdowns ensued, and the overall tone of the show shifted from season one to two, growing subtly darker and more difficult to watch, all while still operating off the same formula.

This same tonal change is also used to tremendous effect in the Gervais/Merchant series’ The Office and Extras.  The first seasons of both British series are light and pleasant, and while the formula remains the same for the second seasons, much of the fun and joy are gone, replaced with an emphasis on the dramatic evolution of the characters, who are not always so lovable as time passes.  Sportsnight went for a crowd-pleasing upbeat end in the last two minutes of the finale, The Office and Extras utilized an entire final episode all its own to send the shows off on a high note, but the satisfaction the audience felt was not from the happy ending per se, but more from the knowledge the characters had suffered in overcoming their own flaws to achieve it.  The characters had earned their moment, and so we the audience felt justified in sharing it with them.


No question, Sportsnight jumped the shark.  So what.  Greatness always courts failure.

Stay tuned for the final installment – Angel


[1] And not in a good way, like when I watch Federer hit a forehand.  Or when astrologists discover another planet that can sustain life.  Or when I contemplate the next Fast and Furious movie.

[2] I played around with the sentence construction here, and while my intention was to describe the fiancée as a woman from the past, you would be forgiven for believing her to be extremely aged.  I’m comfortable with either interpretation.

[3] Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond come to mind again.

[4] Breaking Bad is perhaps the best current example.

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