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Sports Night/Cliff Gardner

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Cliff Gardner
Season 2, Episode 3
Airdate October 19, 1999
Production Number N-327
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Robert Berlinger
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When Something Wicked This Way Comes
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Louise Revisited
Sports NightSeason Two

Cliff Gardner is the third episode of the second season of Sports Night, and the twenty-sixth episode overall.

Things become even more tense when J.J. and the network demand changes to the show. Dana's temper endangers her career when she makes a stand. Sam proves to Isaac and J.J. where his true loyalties lie.

Starring: Josh Charles (Dan Rydell), Peter Krause (Casey McCall), Felicity Huffman (Dana Whitaker), Joshua Malina (Jeremy Goodwin), Sabrina Lloyd (Natalie Hurley) and Robert Guillaume (Isaac Jaffe)

Guest Starring: William H. Macy (Sam), Kayla Blake (Kim), Greg Baker (Elliott), Robert Mailhouse (J.J.), Ron Ostrow (Will), Timothy Davis-Reed (Chris), Jeff Mooring (Dave), Tim Dekay (Mitchel), Bari Hochwald (Tasker)


Plot Overview

Partway through the evening's broadcast, Dana is feeling the tension in the control room and the obvious stiffness Dan and Casey are exhibiting on-air. Only a week after his arrival, Sam Donovan seems to be exerting too much influence and making everyone nervous. At that moment, Sam himself enters the control room. Seeing the stiffness in the anchors, he suggests that Natalie and Dana whisper in the guys' earpieces, to make them more "playful." Dana refuses.

During commercials, Dana leaves the control room to give a pep-talk that sounds more like a tongue-lashing. Sam follows after, telling Dan and Casey that since his presence is too intimidating, he'll leave the studio. As he walks away moments before the commercial break ends, he surreptitiously steals the anchors' script from their desk and disables the teleprompter. Dana is forced to whisper the script into their ears and realizes she has been manipulated by an expert.

The next morning, Natalie is in Dana's office, horrified to hear the news that the network brass are sending J.J. to give "notes" on improving the show's ratings. She can't believe that the network has so little faith in the show. Dana takes the comment personally, and complains that she may consider offers from other networks. Natalie is frightened by the suggestion of working at CSC without her. At the staff meeting, Dan takes the news even worse than Natalie, calling Dana a "secretary".

Later that day Dan knocks on Dana's door with an apology gift. Casey also enters, and suggests that Dana relieve tension by setting aside her "Casey must date other women" rule so that they can have an evening out. Dana turns him down kindly, and asks him to control Dan's temper during the meeting with J.J.. Meanwhile, J.J. has arrived with two other network execs in Isaac's office, where they are introduced to Sam. J.J. informs Isaac that the network feels Sports Night is "underachieving," and expects Isaac to start implementing their suggestions. Isaac asks if that would allow his staff to keep their jobs, but J.J. refuses to promise. Fed up, Isaac throws them out.

In the hallway, J.J. implies to Sam that if Isaac is no longer able to effectively run the show, Sam could take his place. Sam appears to agree to this, then returns to Isaac's office. Isaac, who knew that J.J. would make the offer, advises Sam to "play ball" with them, then excuses himself to sit in the control room.

J.J. and his cronies are now in the conference room, giving notes to the staff. They advise Dan and Casey to follow the network notes and write in a less intellectual style. Dana argues that as professionals, Dan and Casey shouldn't be asked to lower their standards at the network's request, but J.J. asserts that as the financial backers of the show, the network can do exactly that. Dana throws down an ultimatum and J.J. is on the verge of firing her when Dan agrees to try harder to please the network, saving her job. Casey and Dan meekly agree to follow the notes. Dana calls a five-minute break to the meeting, and leaves J.J. talking to an empty room. Sam enters the conference room as Dana and the rest of the staff walk out, and invites the three execs to follow him.

As they walk through the halls into the studio, Sam tells them the story of Philo Farnsworth, the American inventor of television, and his brother-in-law Cliff Gardner. Although he couldn't help Farnsworth with the design of his invention, Gardner assisted by learning to craft glass tubes for the cathode receptors. In the same way, Sam explains, he is respected by the show staff because although he is not as creative or talented, he can help them. Sam also warns them not to even think of replacing Isaac, or he will ruin their careers. Sam leaves the stunned execs to exit by the studio door. As he returns to the conference room Sam notices that Isaac, sitting in the control room, has heard the entire speech, and they exchange kind words.

Sam finds Dana and the staff re-assembled in the conference room. He tells them that even though the staff doesn't like him, his goal is to raise the show's ratings high enough to put it out of danger of network interference. Surprised by this display of loyalty, they leave to go do the evening's show.


Arc Advancement


  • The CSC network try to exhibit direct control over the writing of the show, but are temporarily rebuffed.
  • J.J. offers Sam the chance to replace Isaac as Managing Editor, which Sam refuses.
  • Dana almost gets herself fired after arguing with J.J..


  • Sam and Isaac clearly share a friendship that predates his appearance on the show. Isaac offers some paternal advice to Sam, and Sam displays openness and a fierce loyalty to Isaac.
  • The network's pressure on the show has caused Dana to consider other offers.


  • Sam's line that he "won't make fools" out of the staff echoes Dan telling Rebecca that he "would never make a fool" out of her, from 1x17. (Although the line is in a different context here.)


The Show

  • Natalie mentions that the CSC network is only three years old. At the time of the pilot episode, Jeremy says that Sports Night has been on since "two years, two months and a week ago today." From this we can deduce that Sports Night is probably one of the original shows CSC aired when it began.
  • In 2004, Sports Night creator Aaron Sorkin adapted the story of Philo Farnsworth, and the struggle for ownership of the invention, into a movie script entitled "The Farnsworth Invention". Although the script was picked up by New Line Cinema, it languished undeveloped. Sorkin adapted the script into a stage play, which will be produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in February and March 2007. [1]

Behind the Scenes

Allusions and References

  • When the executives are giving the staff examples of other sportscasters whose writing styles they should emulate, they say "Keith and Kenny... Or Craig." These are Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn and (most likely) Kenny Albert. In fact, the character of Casey is partially based on the personality of Craig Kilborn.
  • Although Sam's information about the life of inventor Philo Farnsworth and his glass-blowing brother-in-law is mostly accurate, there is some contention regarding who can be called "the inventor of television" due to the problem of what exactly is meant by "television." Other inventors, such as John Logie Baird and Vladimir Zworykin had earlier demonstrated devices which could receive and display images. Still, Farnsworth usually receives the credit for three main reasons:
    • Farnsworth's invention was electronic, and contained no mechanical parts, unlike Baird's
    • His design was the basis for mass-produced televisions constructed by RCA and Philco
    • Following his death in 1971, Farnsworth's descendants "talked up" his accomplishments in historical accounts

Memorable Moments

  • Dana realizes that she has been manipulated into whispering.
  • Dana loses her temper at Natalie.
  • Dan apologizes with wine and cheese spackle.
  • Dana gives J.J. two choices.
  • Sam tells J.J. the story of Cliff Gardner, followed by a warning and an exit.


  • (Sam has a suggestion to loosen up Casey and Dan.)
    Sam: Men like the sound of a woman whispering in their ear. They get playful.
    Dana: Why don't we just get 'em a lap dance?
    Sam: We don't have that kinda time, but I like your thinking.
  • Dana: I'm doing the best I can!
    Natalie: No one's blaming you.
    Dana: EVERYONE'S BLAMING ME! And knowing me as you do Natalie, I thought you might consider cutting me a little slack!
  • Dana: One of the legs on the craft service table is wobbly?
    Elliott: Yeah.
    (Dana breaks out laughing. After a moment, the rest of the staff joins in.)
    Casey: Hey! The show's important, but first things first: There are bagels on that table!
  • (Dan is unhappy that Dana will accept notes from network executives.)
    Dana: I'm doing the best I can.
    Dan: The fact that that might be true absolutely terrifies me, Dana.
    Natalie: Danny!
    Dana: You've become a malcontent, Danny.
    Dan: And you've become a secretary, Dana!
  • (Dan has presented Dana with some wine as an apology gift.)
    Dan: I wanted to get you some cheese. There's a great cheese place over on Second Avenue. I went over there after I got the wine, but it's gone. There's a hardware store there now.
    Dana: That's okay.
    Dan: (reaches into the bag) I got you some spackle.
  • Casey: So, I was talking to Danny about the dating plan--
    Dana: And he thinks you should be psyched?
    Casey: Yeah. Yeah, which I thought was crazy, but you know, maybe I'm the one who's crazy--
    Dana: Casey, I want you to date other women. I don't want you to enjoy it.
  • Dana: I want us to have a real chance.
    Casey: I understand.
    Dana: Do you?
    Casey: No, but what choice do I have?
    (Dana gives him a soft kiss.)
    Dana: None.
  • Isaac: Just because we didn't execute all the network's suggestions, doesn't mean we weren't listening, it just means we didn't agree. You didn't expect me to substitute your judgement for mine, did you, J.J.?
  • Isaac: J.J.?
    J.J.: Yeah.
    Isaac: (smiling) I've never liked you.
    J.J.: (also smiling) I know.
  • Isaac: I feel like doing something that has something to do with television.
  • Dana: (to J.J.) At this point you have two choices: Fire me or shut the hell up!
  • Sam: (to J.J.) One last thing: The first and last decision making authority on this show will rest with Isaac Jaffee until Isaac Jaffee says otherwise. And if you disrespect him in my presence again, I will re-dedicate the rest of my life to ruining the rest of yours. And if you think I'm just mouthing at ya, you should ask around about me. I have absolutely no conscience about these things.
  • Sam: I have two priorities. The first is getting from the beginning of the day to the end of the day without having a drink. The second is raising this show's ratings to the point where it's no longer in danger of what almost happened here today. (pause) Trust me, I won't make fools outta you.