Season 1 | Episode 8 | “Thespis” | Aired Nov 17, 1998
Let’s be honest: Most holiday TV episodes aren’t great. But “Thespis,” which is Sports Night‘s ode to Thanksgiving, is worth giving thanks for, what with its St. Crispin’s Day references and frozen turkey falling off the light grid.
The frozen turkey is courtesy of Dana, who’s thawing it out to avoid confrontation with her mother when she hosts the yearly Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not long before water begins dripping onto the anchor desk, followed by a 24-pound bird crashing down between Dan and Casey. “Clearly I’m going to be taking crap from my mother,” Dana says ruefully as she picks up her now not-frozen fowl and takes it back into the control room. Jeremy tries to remind her that Mom Whitaker will love her even though she annoys her, so which of these things should she be focusing on?
Dana’s not the only one focused on a memorable date. It’s the anniversary of Dan and Casey’s first-ever broadcast together in Dallas, and Dan is upset that Casey thinks the day has something to do with Alberto Salazer and the New York Marathon. Five years ago, they were anchoring Lone Star Sports, and that seems like something worthy of a little recognition. This quickly turns into a deeper discussion about how Casey was offered the hosting gig on NBC’s Late Night before Conan O’Brien; Dan feels like he was his best friend’s second choice, but Casey doesn’t want to talk about it.
See, Dan doesn’t know that five years ago, Casey turning down the Late Night job was the beginning of the end for Casey and his oft-referenced-but-never-seen ex-wife Lisa. Isaac encourages Casey to tell Dan the truth, and show him that he really does matter. “So you say a few words. You make a gesture. You remember an important date,” Isaac tells him. “Small price to pay for what you get in return. For what you get in return, it’s a steal.”
Casey subsequently confesses all, and is surprised when Dan is upset with him for letting a major broadcast gig go, insisting that he would’ve been a brilliant late-night host no matter what anyone else thought. But then he realizes what Dan’s doing: He’s making a gesture. “Thank you,” Casey says, and our favorite TV bromance is alive and well once more.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s daughter Cathy is due to have his first grandchild any day now, which understandably has him both excited and worried—especially because he had a fight with his wife Esther before she left to be with Cathy, and his son-in-law Douglas hasn’t rehearsed the route to the hospital. After Esther informs him that Cathy is having an emergency C-section, he realizes that he’s been acting a lot like a cranky old man recently and gets on the first flight out to San Francisco. He returns with good news: Cathy and his new grandson Matthew are both healthy and resting, so let’s pass out the cigars!
The episode takes its title from Thespis, the first man to speak words onstage as an actor in a play, who, legend has it, is spending his afterlife as a mischievous ghost. Dana becomes convinced that Thespis will ruin her show, which seems to be a well-founded concern: Dan mispronounces “Red Wings locker room,” a series of technical mishaps happen (including dead air that forces Casey to recite part of the St. Crispin’s Day speech he once gave at the St. Paul Radisson), and the entire show turns to static. Only when Kathie Lee Gifford falls into tapioca at a gala across town does everyone breathe a sigh of relief.
It’s hard to find holiday-themed episodes of TV that aren’t clichéd or cheesy, but Sports Night always managed to mark its occasions well, whether it was celebrating Thanksgiving with “Thespis” or ringing in Christmas with “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee.” What makes these episodes work is that the holiday doesn’t take over the entire show. It’s part of the plot, but we don’t need to have constant references to it or shoehorn in scenes of celebration. You do have to admit, though, that a 24-pound turkey falling off the light grid is pretty funny.
Underneath the events of this episode is what made the show great for two seasons: a tremendous amount of heart. There’s an important lesson here about letting your loved ones know that you love them, something that still resonates today—probably more so now that we spend half of our time busy with work and the other half staring into our smartphones. It’s amazing how much a small gesture can mean to someone, whether it’s a kind word, a quick note, or just saying “thank you.” If everyone tried to make a gesture even just once a year like Dan, the world would probably be a much happier place. Just watch out for that tapioca.
Sports Night is available on Hulu.