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'Sports Night' nostalgia recap: Best Christmas episode ever?

Season 1 | Episode 11 | “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee” | Aired Dec 15, 1998

Sports Night‘s “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee” may be the best Christmas episode of TV ever. And also one of the best episodes of TV ever. Most holiday episodes are full of schmaltz and/or forced to tie into the occasion in often awkward ways, but this one teaches us two valuable lessons and features a fantastic performance from the legendary Robert Guillaume. When it first aired, it was like getting a present early.

The episode’s title comes from the main story, in which several of Tennessee Western University’s athletes protest its flying of the Confederate flag outside the football stadium. African-American player Roland Shepard doesn’t want to play until the flag is removed, so the university is threatening him with a suspension that will result in the loss of his scholarship. While Shepard has the talent to land at another school, six of his teammates stepped down in support of him—and those folks won’t be so lucky.

Tennessee Western also happens to be the alma mater of CSC network boss Luther Sachs, who thinks this would be a good time to force Sports Night to run a piece on Southern traditions in sports. Dan thinks it would be a better idea to have Isaac make an editorial commentary. “You’ve got to stop thinking of me as the champion of all things black,” Isaac tells him. He’s also convinced that Sachs has been looking for a reason to fire him for the last six months.

Dan isn’t satisfied with that, insisting that if Isaac were fired, half the staff would go with him, and a heavyweight alum like Sachs could help the situation. His pep talk convinces Isaac to throw the puff piece out of the rundown and get in front of the camera, to tell his boss on national television that he should insist Tennessee Western take down that flag. “To ask Americans to walk beneath its shadow is a humiliation of irreducible proportions, and we all know it,” he says, in part of one of the coolest monologues to appear on television.

The subsequent round of applause is absolutely deserved, but within moments, Sachs is on the phone wanting to know what Isaac has just done. It’s no surprise that this episode won the Sports Night writing staff a Humanitas Prize in 1999, along with episode nine, “The Quality of Mercy at 29K.” (Trivia tidbit: Josh Charles would be part of two more Humanitas-winning productions: Showtime’s brilliant TV movie Our America, which earned the distinction in 2003, and The Good Wife, in 2010.)

In the subplot, everyone realizes that Casey doesn’t know a damn thing about anyone outside of the main cast. Dan chastises him for not knowing that the operator of camera number two is a hockey fan named Jerome. Then he goes on The View (nice cross-promotion there, ABC!), and when the hosts compliment his ties, he doesn’t give due credit to the wardrobe staff.

This upsets wardrobe assistant Monica (Janel Moloney, before she became Donna Moss on The West Wing), who marches into the guys’ office to point out that not only does Casey not know her name either, but her boss, Maureen, would’ve appreciated just the tiniest mention. She also teaches us the difference between gray and gun metal. You go, Monica.

The show closes with a heartwarming moment: Casey leading a roll call of all the Sports Night staffers, who are in actuality many of the real crew members who make the actual show we’ve come to love so much, including award-winning editor Janet Ashikaga and prop supervisor Jode Mann. It’s a great gesture from the character showing that he’s learned his lesson, but it’s also a wonderful display of love and respect from the series to its real-life crew. There wasn’t really anything about this show that wasn’t lovely, and it’s nice to hear some folks get on-air shout-outs. (And if you have the 10th-anniversary DVD box set and listen to the cast commentary for this episode, you’ll learn even more about the crew.)

This is another episode that gives more screen time to Robert Guillaume, who can really do no wrong. It also sends more attention to the almost familial relationship between Isaac and Dan. Just as in “The Apology,” and later on in “The Giants Win the Pennant, the Giants Win the Pennant,” you can see how much Dan looks up to Isaac. It’s nice that in this installment, Dan can give a little something back to Isaac in return.

“The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee” is Sports Night‘s Christmas episode, but it’s not just a holiday episode. It’s an episode that’s thought-provoking and moving, and it actually gives some equally strong material to the guest stars. It all comes together to teach us something, as Sports Night often did. It might have been a sports show, but it was never just that. It was always something much, much stronger, and a great gift to TV fans everywhere.

Sports Night is available on Hulu.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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