What makes a good sitcom? Strong writing
Once in a while a truly bright situation comedy comes along - thoughtful, good-hearted, and smart enough to take on real human issues and in 22-1/2 minutes tell a good story. Two of the best are the NBC veteran Just Shoot Me (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) and ABC's new Sports Night (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.).
While these shows are wildly different in content and intent, they both boast ace writers and large, excellent casts; they are both workplace comedies; and, as in many other workplace sitcoms, the workers themselves care so much for one another they form an ersatz family.
The intimacy of a workplace "family" is a key to the success of each show. "As you spend more time with [the characters], you realize that underneath the barbs, these people really care about each other," says "Just Shoot Me" creator-producer Steve Levitan.
In "Just Shoot Me" all the "siblings" are equally immature - and the "dad" of the family is the most immature of all: Veteran screen actor George Segal plays the devilish editor of a flashy women's fashion magazine.
But in "Sports Night," the "sibs" are equally mature, and the "dad" is one of the most admirable characters in all of sitcom city. Robert Guillaume plays the head honcho on a cable sports channel (modeled after ESPN) with such integrity, style, and dry wit that he makes the fundamental morality of the whole show plausible.
The approach to storytelling is quite different in these shows. "Just Shoot Me" is character-driven - all of the eccentrics who work at the magazine and form this mildly dysfunctional family are in constant conflict with one another. Whenever one of them sets out on some selfish, predatory adventure, he or she generally loses. At the heart of the show is the relationship between editor Jack (Segal) and his adult daughter, Maya (Laura San Giacomo). He has neglected her, and he is trying to make amends. "Maya's the one we identify with because she has a good heart, high ideals, and is intelligent and strong," Mr. Levitan says.
"Maya's mission is to try to make Jack a better person, and Jack's mission is to make Maya have more fun," he adds. "There are a lot of messages I think, though not [self-consciously] imposed: One is that people come in a lot of different sizes and shapes and just because someone is outlandish or hard-bitten on the outside, doesn't mean they don't have a good heart.... But I think one of the core messages of the show is about being there for your family."
Not that "Just Shoot Me" isn't plenty outrageous enough - it's rife with libidinal humor, like most sitcoms. But imbedded in the writing is usually something intelligent. For one thing, Levitan and his writers occasionally create hilarious homages to literary and cinematic heroes - sendups of King Lear, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," and Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," among them.
Newcomer "Sports Night" was created by writer-producer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote "An American President" and "A Few Good Men," both witty, substantial films. It seems to get better every week. "What I enjoy writing about is good people becoming great people," Mr. Sorkin says. "All the characters are great characters - we'd all like to have them over for dinner. But when faced with more difficult questions," he says, they do something that's difficult rather than something that is expedient.
The first time he read the pilot, actor Robert Guillaume realized this show was for him, even though his character was not fully developed in the first episode. "The writing, I thought, was exceptional - that was the principal attraction.... I was looking for a character like this to play. Isaac is substantial. And the [character] speaks to something I feel deeply about - an essential goodness and an essential tough love - which I thought I could do well."
It is also a "safe show for women and minorities who are not likely to be insulted by it in some gratuitous way," continues Guillaume, who is black. "It's not a wasted 30 minutes. I like the way Aaron uses his material and brings together certain ideas. For example, the first show was about a crises of conscience. The anchor is disillusioned with sports. I like the way [Aaron] resolved the anchor's spiritual dilemma. A South African runner abused by the minority government [triumphs], and the anchor helps his own son appreciate something about the indomitability of the human spirit."