Sports Night (1998-2000) * Mentors, Trust & Turkeys
TV Herstory is filled with workplace shows that depict women characters at their smart, competent best. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the first to come to mind, but in reality, the show is Mary’s personal life blended with her role as Associate Producer at WJM. At work, Mary is definitely part of an ensemble.
For women characters to stand out in ensemble shows, they need to hit a very high mark. Is she a leader or perhaps the title character? Does the actress bring a knock-out resume or Hollywood credibility that provides those behind the camera, the confidence that golden performances will follow?
For two seasons, from 1998 to 2000, an early Aaron Sorkin show - Sports Night – was a prime time highlight - an intelligent, well-written, occasionally preachy comedy intended as “quality TV.”
It is a show conceived and largely written and produced by men, mostly about men and the sports they cover for a nightly cable sports show also titled Sports Night. BUT, it has an important place in TV Herstory worth exploring.
Three characters – actually three characters who represent the minority of Sports Night’s staff and audience – reveal a 3 part mentor/mentee relationship that is unparalleled in TV.
In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to look at the special workplace relationships of Isaac Jafee, Dana Whitaker and Natalie Hurley. I’ll provide enough background so you’ll appreciate the full lesson, even if you’ve never seen a single episode.
Sure, we hear a lot about mentoring from our employers and professional associations. In her book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg goes to great lengths to qualify her definition of the mentor/mentee commitment.
Mentees want mentors so they may gain an edge and learn more. Busy in their own jobs, mentors are not so quick to jump into any extra commitment, the benefits of which are likely intangible.
So while we look at how these three characters managed through 45 episodes, numerous scrapes, corporate challenges and personal dramas, Isaac, Dana and Natalie – a truly unique trio in TV Herstory, capably demonstrate what we know today to be best practices of regular employees who work for companies a bit less high profile than Facebook.
So first, a bit of background about these characters and the show.
Then, basic tenets of mentor/mentee programs, like what they’re supposed to achieve and why they’re important.
Finally, with those standards in mind, we’ll look at how our Sports Night trio showed this in ways otherwise not seen among women in a workplace comedy.
Sports Night’s short life makes it a time capsule show like few others. Its most obvious date stamp? Perhaps the B-roll prominently featuring the Twin Towers at dusk. It was off the air well before September 11, 2001.
1998 depicted the high energy of technological and entertainment thinking that led to the dot com bubble, which eventually burst in the early 2000s. It’s hard not to notice the internet and cell phones with antennas are a novelty in many episodes. Sports Night, the fictional show, was just three years old – the nightly sports highlight show sitting third in the ratings behind similar shows on ESPN and Fox. All the main characters seem to have been hired at the show’s beginning, so we know that the core team was built somewhat by invitation.
But none of them are satisfied with third place.
Isaac Jaffee, played by the incomparable and accomplished Robert Guillaume, is the show’s leader – its managing editor. Isaac brings a 40 year career in reporting in print and TV and was brought in to build the show. He’s almost 30 years older than Dana –which makes him part of the Traditionals Generation. He’s lived through all the advancements in technology that comprise today’s news room and maintains high ethics and journalistic integrity.
Over the 2 seasons, viewers grow to appreciate Isaac’s wisdom, his confidence in taking a stand on the right issue and the role he plays in helping the staff work through personal issues during their long, unpredictable, stressful days.
During the real show’s run, actor Robert Guillaume suffered a mild stroke. Sorkin wrote that event for Isaac into the story arc and it became a turning point for the self-absorbed characters who were forced to grow up a bit. In returning to the show with mild impairment, Guillaume became a national voice for stroke awareness.
Portrayed by Felicity Huffman, Dana Whitaker, the fictional show’s producer, filled the role as interim leader when it wasn’t clear Isaac would return to work. Dana entered a period of growth and stress – funny how those two usually go hand in hand. From this breakout role, Huffman, who went on to become a Desperate Housewife.
As executive producer, Dana is responsible for day-to-day operations, with workdays starting at Noon and ending at Midnight. She’s 33 years old and has a Masters degree in Broadcast Production.
Her vast sports knowledge comes from being raised in a family with six brothers, one of whom now plays pro football. Dana Whitaker is competitive and likely among the first women in her extended family to be living a professional life.
She recounts her hiring at Sports Night as Isaac taking a chance on her and consistently works hard to not only meet Isaac’s expectations, but also her own. In modeling these standards, she keeps the crew pointed toward excellence.
Dana is so committed to her job and its intensity that she sabotages a relationship with Gordon and denies herself one with Casey. Despite this, she intimates at one point that she fears never getting married.
She doesn’t have much contact with her family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and worries that she cannot live up to her mother’s expectations of cooking her first big Thanksgiving meal when her family plans a visit to Manhattan.
Dana is a complex, competitive woman who represents the tail end of the Baby Boom. She knows first hand the mechanics of her industry, dictating precise orders, changing plans on the fly and trying hard to maintain her professionalism.
Though it’s never really articulated or formalized, Natalie Hurley, age 27 played by Sabrina Lloyd, is Dana Whitaker’s mentee. This relationship is at a different career stage than the mentor/mentee connection Isaac and Dana share, but together, they represent advancement toward next goals and opportunities.
Natalie has been hired as Sports Night’s Senior Associate Producer. She manages a few direct reports and each taping of Sports Night she’s in the control room next to Dana, highly capable in handling her responsibilities and taking on more as Dana directs them.
Natalie is smart and talented. She’s hard working and direct. As a Gen Xer, that directness is partly the desire to get the job done so she can have a life outside of work. In the first episode, she interviews and hires Jeremy as an associate producer. Their romantic relationship lasts through most of the show’s run and provides challenges and lessons for personal growth she’s otherwise not getting from work.
As a graduate of the prestigious Northwestern University Journalism program, Natalie tries in one episode to guide her career toward being on-camera talent. After being told she’s not ready for that yet, she continues to garner high marks in her current role. At the start of season 2, we learn Natalie was offered an on-camera job in Galveston, Texas but turned it down, in part out of consideration for her relationship with Jeremy.
Talented? Marketable? Yes. Conflicted about work-life balance? Yes, and when there’s handwriting on the wall that the show may be cancelled, Natalie applies for a studio producer job with Saturday Night Live. She nails the interview and declines a job offer that includes more pay. It seems a bit out of character that she wouldn’t have jumped at that job. If I recall, SNL in 2000 was finally on the upswing as Tina Fey was not only writing but also doing sketch work.
Jeremy’s supportive words and Natalie’s response demonstrate a strong, trusting relationship. From this, Natalie weighs her own ambition, with sacrifices necessary to build a life with Jeremy.
Natalie loves her job. Dana loves her job. Isaac treasures every day in his role, which he views with an eye to all the history he’s lived and will never see unfold.
So, ask someone the question, “what was the best part about your best job?” and you SHOULD get people in the answer.
And while the workplace is filled with formal and informal relationships, the special connection between a mentor and mentee can be life-changing. Yes, it’s more work to take someone under your wing, but most who commit to the effort will say that they receive as much as they give.
These relationships are about personal growth. A mentor guides, trains, advises, and promotes the career development of her mentee – though this can take place within an organization, within a field, or among people who have nothing professional in common but are willing to work through growth.
In selecting a mentee, a mentor generally looks for someone whose values and performance standards align with her own. From there, as advisor, a mentor may present challenges to spur growth or mastery, may coach so as to improve problem solving and strategic visioning, may serve as a promoter of the up and comer – opening up her network as an extension of her own confidence.
Along the way, a mentor looks for teachable moments in important growth areas of role modeling, ethics, interpersonal skills and boundaries.
Successful mentees live up to a commitment of sustained energy and focus. The efforts that results in their progress need to be recognized. When the journalistic code of ethics enters into a few Sports Night plots, the characters unite to a professional standard and common bond. At those moments, we the audience witness the moral and ethical maturity of our main characters.
Sports Night relationships are not so much a part of a formal program, as they are apprenticing. There was no application and selection process to bring each pair together. But in knowing the learning curve and amount of hard work necessary to build a successful show on a new network, Isaac hired Dana and Dana hired Natalie. They knew this team could be competitive.
It’s impossible to watch this show and NOT appreciate the incredibly fast paced, complex layering that goes into live broadcast production. Forget your own industry acronyms, this team has full knowledge of operational shorthand that’s contained in orders barked out with expectation of full and immediate attention.
So, with Dana in the role of mentor AND mentee, we relate to her as she grows in these areas:
- leading people,
- handling technical issues of production,
- staying abreast of the increasing amount of sports information
- maintaining high standards around time management and daily deadlines
- managing a budget
- and navigating office and network politics – a tremendous challenge for new managers and leaders.
With all this on Dana’s shoulders, it’s in Isaac’s best interest to stay close to her, guide her development, serve as a resource.
Actually, there was a moment when Isaac’s intentions about Dana’s growth came to the conversation. In Episode 12, a few months before Guillaume’s real life stroke, Isaac tells Dana he wants to start grooming her. He’s worried that he might be swept up in budget cuts and encourages her to start attending monthly luncheons and budget meetings.
Similarly, Natalie’s growth is best tended by Dana, even if that means melding her mentor role with close friendship. That’s a reality with 12 hour workdays, and Natalie doesn’t have much of a life beyond work. More importantly, Natalie is next-in-command and needs to be ready to assume that role on short notice.
Here are a few examples of how these mentoring moments played out.
- When someone from the crew is called into Isaac’s office, Dana is there either by instinct or invitation. She keeps herself at the center of things and Isaac facilitates that.
- Episode 5 is a poses the moral question of doing the right thing with doing what’s best for the show. Dana lands a big interview with pro football player who has been convicted of sexual assault. She sends Natalie to conduct the pre-interview in the stadium locker room the day before he’s scheduled to be on the show.
- The football player exposes himself and physically gets rough with Natalie. There’s an ongoing drama about filing charges, not filing charges, leveraging the act of not filing charges as a way to improve the boundaries of the interview – all in the name of achieving better ratings.
Dana wrestles with the options, later admitting …
Natalie is upset that decisions are being made without her input, that she’s just a pawn. Initially Dana throws Natalie under the bus but in the 11th hour, changes course and supports Natalie in her belief that for all of women in sports broadcasting, she should file charges against the football player.
Yes, this IS a comedy.
There are a number of story arcs in which trust is a big factor. They include a love square – that’s right – one point bigger than a love triangle featuring Dana, SportsNight anchor and old friend Casey McCall, Dana’s boyfriend Gordon and the producer of the west coast update, Sally Sasser. Dana and Sally, to say the least, are competitors.
Trust, truth telling, squaring up with the truth – there’s a lot of ethical consideration into maintaining integrity in this workplace.
On numerous occasions, information Isaac shares with Dana is immediately revealed to Natalie once Dana steps into the hallway. Is this a judgment call about why maintaining secrecy is or isn’t important? Is Dana at a more competitive point in her career (and safe enough in her own role) that the information holds a value that needs to be acted upon?
Natalie, we learn, is an inexperienced leak and her judgment never improves.
Natalie and Dana share many personal details and prop each other up through numerous love spats and moments of anger or confusion. However, Natalie is much more forthcoming and transparent. She’ll share and doesn’t question whether it’s professional or not. We can imagine that Dana’s first jobs were in environments with older staff members who would have labeled her unprofessional.
On occasion Natalie shines brilliantly, running the show in Dana’s absence. The episode “Small Town” was nominated for a host of awards.
The plot: On the eve of the Major League baseball trading deadline and the newsroom was filled with interest about last minute moves. Natalie uses street smarts and brings the best out of the team in gaining an exclusive about a 7-player trade. She does so while running the control room and getting the trade news officially confirmed. Dana sees it on a TV and beams with pride.
Dana’s focus on “what’s good for the show” is revealed in her getting more savvy in her relations with the network. With Isaac on leave, the network wants her to delegate some of her responsibilities to Sally Sasser, not Natalie. Dana initially resists but decides that’s not a fight to wage. Even as a mentor, she recognized that there may be times when NOT promoting her protégé is in the best interest of the network.
In season 2, when Natalie pressures Jeremy to fire a writer’s assistant who is only employed because he’s related to someone high up in the network, Jeremy resists. He asserts it’s not worth making things worse with the network. Natalie stresses that the assistant’s poor performance reflects poorly on the crew and show. She goes on to proclaim that the decisions she makes are out of loyalty to Isaac, loyalty to Dana and loyalty to the show.
Episode 23 represents one of the most stressful days in Dana’s career. Her personal life is in a shambles. To distract herself, Dana decides to buy an expensive, sophisticated camera equipment package and learn photography. She’s embarrassed when she can’t get the components and timer synched to take a staff photo.
Turns out the film was in upside down.
Moments later, when she yells in frustration that she just wants one thing to go right, Isaac walks into office for the first time since his stroke. It’s one of Sports Night’s most emotional moments, in real life as well as on screen.
Advanced TV Herstory seeks out any good performance when a woman character vents about personal or professional frustrations or, perhaps more importantly, speak passionately of how much they really love their jobs.
ABC dropped Sports Night after two seasons. In the final episode, viewers are led to believe the fictional show will go on, in the hands of new network ownership.
For all the mentoring and succession planning, the show ends only with a plan for tomorrow, not the long term. We don’t know when Isaac retires from full time work. Dana is in the prime of her career and seems thrilled that the new owner is as competitive as she is – and finds her to be highly competent.
And Natalie? How long would she serve as Dana’s right hand?
This crew was on the wave of great change, some coming from an industry ripe for disruption from technology and realities caused by mergers and acquisitions. In the fall of 2001, the world changed … and the dot com bubble brought a new landscape. Investors were incredibly business savvy and required better business plans from every new venture.
In 2015, we can look at this time capsule show and appreciate how far we’ve come in recent herstory.
Dana would be 50, Natalie 45 – they should be leading more good teams. Wouldn’t it be great to see the fruits of these memorable mentoring relationships borne out in a whole new show? A show that proves hard work, intelligence and integrity still mean something? A show that plugs another generation into the front line of producing today’s daily TV show, emboldens Dana and Natalie to leverage their best “for the good of the show…”