Television series are often judged by their series finale, for better or worse. Here at 25YL, we’re going to be looking at both the best and worst finales and what made them great (or not so great) in our “Art of the Finale” series. Got a finale you think should make the list? Be sure and let us know!
“Anybody who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the money-making business.” – “Quo Vadimus,” the series finale of Sports Night which aired May 16, 2000.
It has now been close to 19 years since Casey McCall and Dan Rydell, hosts of the nightly series Sports Night, said their final goodnights from their anchor desks inside the studios of Continental Sports Corp where Sports Night was broadcast from. Of course, this is the show inside the show of Sports Night—the dynamic, acclaimed, but ratings-challenged comedy/drama series broadcast on ABC from September 1998 to May 2000.
Created by Aaron Sorkin in 1998, Sports Night starred an incredible (and I do mean incredible) cast of performers: Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Josh Charles, Sabrina Lloyd, Joshua Malina, and Robert Guillaume. It also featured at least a dozen talented performers (William H. Macy, Teri Polo, Paula Marshall, Brenda Strong, Lisa Edelstein, Alanna Ubach, Ted McGinley, and more) who came along for the chance to read Sorkin’s fantastic dialogue and play in his world of a fictional nightly sports show.
Its cancellation in the spring of 2000 actually came as a bit of a shock to the cast and crew of ABC’s Sports Night as they believed they were in a good place to return for another year (shades of the demise of Twin Peaks in 1991 may ring familiar). But sadly, that was not the case. Word came from ABC that the show was cancelled in May 2000—the day the final episode aired.
During this final year, creator Aaron Sorkin was riding high on the acclaim of another show he was overseeing: NBC’s The West Wing. In fact, during that year (1999–2000) Sorkin had written 22 episodes of West Wing and 22 of Sports Night (David E. Kelley was performing similar duties while simultaneously writing The Practice and Ally McBeal). ABC felt Sorkin was devoting too much time to the gang in his fictional White House and his fictional gang of sports nuts were being sent to the dugout. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth as Sorkin was very, very much involved in Sports Night. Alas, the network umpire gave everyone a final “you’re out!” and Sports Night was gone.
So let’s take a look at this final episode, titled “Quo Vadimus” (more on this title later), which is actually the second half of a two-parter. The previous episode, “La Forza del Destino,” explores how the staff deals with the news that not only are severe cutbacks on the horizon, so is the sale of CSC. Nobody knows who might be buying it and, of greater concern, what the new owners plan on doing with a nightly sports show that continues to come in way behind ESPN.
While the crew decides to forge on and put on, as Casey has often called it, “the best damn sports show on 11-midnight anywhere,” panic does begin to set in. Managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Guillaume) envisions his future consisting of a hammock between two trees and lots of books; Natalie takes a job interview at Saturday Night Live; and Casey and Dan begin to realize their ten years together hosting Sports Night, the show they love, might very soon be coming to an end.
While the team plots and hopes and commiserates over at Jack’s Bar, where they usually gather after a show (apparently nobody who works on this show has a home or apartment to go to, unless they’re sleeping together), Dana encounters a man simply known as “the stranger” who relays some predictions to her about which media corporation will or won’t ultimately purchase CSC. Dana thinks the guy is full of it—until he turns out to be right. This stranger (played by Clark Gregg—yes, Agent Phil Coulson himself), informs Dana which companies are going to “kick out” (sports metaphor!) and which are still “in the game.”
While the fate of Sports Night is up in the air, old romances are rekindled. Natalie and Jeremy bond over what they think may be one of their final nights together while she confesses she still misses him—and also calls him a “goober” for not sleeping with Jenny (Paula Marshall), the beautiful porn star he was briefly dating. Dan finds himself dealing with an ex (of sorts) as well, as his romantic interest from a year prior, Rebecca Wells (Teri Polo) returns to let Dan know she is now 100 percent single and divorced from the man that she turned him down for. Dan, however, is gearing up for a new career in Los Angeles because at this point, it looks like his job at Sports Night in New York is dunzo. Knowing this, Dan rips up her number. That Rebecca always did have crappy timing.
Dana once again encounters “the stranger” in the series’ final episode, “Quo Vadimus.” This is where fans’ frustration might kick in as Sorkin devotes an entire five minutes to a character we’ve never seen before, in what might be the last ever episode of the show. This scene is also shot in extreme close-up of Dana, something that has not been done in the 44 episodes previous to this one. A viewer might be wondering, “did the camera guy leave his zoom on by mistake?” The close-up, however, lets us see the impending sense of uncertainty within her, but we can also see that Dana will not give up on her show or the crew she loves. “The stranger” sees it too and offers her a phrase in Latin to see her through this difficult period: quo vadimus, which means “where are we going?”
Late in the episode, news comes that CSC has been sold, but it has been sold to someone who understands the value of Sports Night. That someone is the owner of a corporation named Quo Vadimus, and the man who owns Quo Vadimus is none other than the stranger Dana has been talking to at Jack’s bar. Sports Night, the show within Sports Night, is safe; the real-life Sports Night wasn’t. This finale works in that most everything was tied up, but those involved in the making of it were hoping for some more time. As it turns out, ABC was certainly no Quo Vadimus.
Now, I do not like sports, I do not watch sports, and I certainly don’t play sports. I can’t tell the difference between a hockey puck and a burnt hamburger patty. But that doesn’t matter because on Sports Night, the characters on the show loved sports. We all love something, and this is why we relate to them. Did one have to be a surgeon to love ER? Did a viewer have to be a detective to love NYPD Blue? No. Those characters were real to us because they love something and we watch them because of what we love: smart, gripping, intelligent, compelling TV. And I loved the characters of Sports Night.
Think of the other great television on at the same time as Sports Night: Spin City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, The X-Files, Ally McBeal, The Practice, South Park, The Drew Carey Show, Two Guys and a Girl, and The West Wing. The first thing I notice about these shows is how many of them actually appeared on network TV. Out of these, only Buffy and South Park aired on specialty networks. I can’t imagine any of these airing on network TV today. Sports Night‘s average was 10 million viewers per week. At the end of the ’90s this was considered dismal. Today it would be called a colossal hit.
The year after Sports Night ended, Peter Krause went on to star in the role of his life as Nate Fisher on Six Feet Under. Felicity Huffman would enjoy a monster hit with Desperate Housewives. Joshua Malina reunited with Sorkin for the final years of The West Wing. Josh Charles went on to star in the hugely popular The Good Wife. Sabrina Lloyd acts occasionally and lives with her family in Uganda. Sorkin, of course, went on to win the Oscar in 2010 for his screenplay for The Social Network and he created The Newsroom for HBO. The Brilliant Robert Guillaume sadly passed away on October 24, 2017.
Over the years, there have been rumors of a possible Sports Night reunion. In fact, Krause admits that he and Sorkin discussed the possibility not that long ago after his NBC series Parenthood ended (Sports Night and Parenthood were both produced under Ron Howard). Alas, nothing has come to pass and with Krause now enjoying success on the hit FOX series 9-1-1, who knows?
However, I’m making a public grand prediction right here, right now on 25 Years Later, and this is it: one day, Sports Night will return to TV. Most likely it won’t be ABC, but I have a very, very strong feeling we have not seen Casey and Dan’s final goodnight. “Where are we going?” Hopefully, before too long, we’ll find out.