How Television Fandom Changes Lives

Today is Josh Charles’ 39th birthday. In a week, it will be exactly 12 years since Sports Night first aired on ABC. I can tell you these things because without Sports Night, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. That’s how I know that television fandom changes lives.

I’m sure every one of you who comes to this site has heard it from someone at some point in your life: you watch too much television. Television is bad for you. Watching television will never amount to anything. I’ve heard it, my friends have heard it, my colleagues have heard it. That’s just the common belief in the world. It’s always upset me, because I’ve always known that it’s not true. With the anniversary of my fandom coming up, I’d like to share with you my story about how TV fandom changed my life, and invite you to tell us yours.

I’ve been both a television fan and a writer since I was in elementary school. I had my favorite shows – Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, Chicago Hope, The Equalizer. I knew I was a good writer. Yet I was convinced, until March 21, 2000, that I was going to be a novelist. I knew people wrote TV shows, and I loved TV. I just didn’t think TV could do the kinds of things I wanted to do with my work, even though I hated having to write 300-400 pages before I felt any sense of accomplishment.

Then Sports Night happened. TV Guide named it their “Best Show You’re Not Watching” in March of 2000. Since previous winners had included Homicide, and I’m also a huge sports nut, I decided to check the show out. It was March 21 when I saw my first episode, entitled “Draft Day, Part 2: It Can’t Rain At Indian Wells.” In that half-hour, I had what could only be described as an epiphany. Aaron Sorkin was writing with the kind of depth, verve and wit that I had always aspired to. I saw in his work that I could write for the medium I loved, and do the kind of writing I wanted to. Not only that, but the cast gave me characters I bonded with instantly, and plots I related to and cared about. From that night on, I knew I’d seen something special. The ripple effect from that night lasted years and touched more than my life.

There are the obvious things: Sports Night gave me my career path. I started writing my first script a few weeks later. It introduced me to a talented cast I’d never before heard of, with the exception of Felicity Huffman. Being introduced to Sports Night ended up leading me to people and works I never would have run across otherwise. Just a few examples: Sorkin was often compared to David Mamet, which is how I discovered Mamet and ended up doing an audition piece from his 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner that put me at the top of my high school drama class. I followed Huffman to Desperate Housewives, which is where I finally took notice of Steven Culp, whose casting got me to watch Traveler, where I took early notice of Matt Bomer before he hit it big, which led me to working with White Collar (and eventually meeting Matt Bomer). Literally, I can leapfrog from one thing to another to another, that all end up going back to Sports Night. And as I was 15 at the time, I can admit now that I developed a high school crush on Peter Krause (who played anchor Casey McCall before Six Feet Under) and Josh Charles (anchor Dan Rydell before The Good Wife). I thought, in that way kids do without regard for reality, that I might marry one of them someday.

Yet my Sports Night experience goes beyond that. It also helped me build a relationship with my best friend of the last decade, Chris Jourdier. Chris and I met in class right around the same time that I was discovering Sports Night, and I quickly turned him on to the series. As a result, we started having little “film festival” get-togethers at his house, where we would watch other things that the cast members had been in. We had a lot of good weekends hanging out over Muppets From Space or Crossworlds or The Truman Show, and that’s how we bonded. It was such a big part of our early time together that we turned classmates on to it when we attended the prestigious CalArts summer program that year, and when I graduated high school, I wore a “Casey” ID bracelet that he gave me. To this day, since “Draft Day” was the first episode we saw, he calls me on every NFL Draft Day just to recognize it. Or sometimes he’ll call me to ask me where Helsinki is, in a callback to the pilot. Chris is an invaluable part of my life, and we wouldn’t be anywhere near as close if we hadn’t bonded over Sports Night.

Needless to say, we were crushed when the show was axed by ABC just two months later (after being preempted for part of that; it aired only one episode in April 2000). For the first time in our lives, we got involved with a campaign when we tried to save the show from cancellation. I can still tell you exactly where I was when I heard Sorkin had turned down the HBO deal to revive it. It was my JFK, because it meant that much to me. The show’s effect in my life and the lives of my friends didn’t stop just because it was cancelled, either. In fact, it came to mean even more after it was gone.

I passed the time, like some other writers I knew, memorializing the show in our creative output. I wrote a few scripts for a virtual third season, and when my class called for us all to come as celebrities, I came as Sabrina Lloyd (who had played associate producer Natalie Hurley). It was October of 2001 and I was still writing virtual scripts when tragedy struck. A childhood friend of mine, John Machado, the first person to tell me that I was going to be a successful writer, had been killed in a reckless driving accident. The person driving him home had decided to mess around with his parents’ SUV and rolled it. John was killed instantly. He was 15.

He and I had been best friends almost all our lives, having grown up down the street from each other; we spent huge portions of our young lives together. He had been the first person to tell me that I was going to do some good with the writing talent that I had. Most importantly, he was the sunshine of my life, that one person who’s always in a good mood and always has faith even when you don’t. He was also the first person I’d ever lost in my entire life. On top of that, it was left to me to notify some of our old friends who had since moved away of his death. I was a wreck after John died. I didn’t sleep for days. I was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It took me eight years to really come to grips with his death. Yet when I was at my worst, on my way to his funeral and thinking I was going to lose it completely, Sports Night was there. It was in Comedy Central reruns at the time, and it was on when I came home to get ready for the funeral. I was waiting for my family and friends to get ready, and sat down to watch the episode, which I still remember – it was “Dear Louise.” Somehow, after watching that, I didn’t feel quite so despondent anymore. It was still a tough time, but the burden was lightened by a half-hour where I spent with a show I loved, and characters that I felt like I knew. It was just like coming home.

Sports Night has continued to play a part in my life for the last decade. When I first started in this business as a sports reporter, I quickly made friends with professional poker player Phil Gordon, who was lovely enough to invite me out for a taping of Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown. One of the executive producers of the show was Joshua Malina (who had played associate producer Jeremy Goodwin). Josh just so happened to be standing near me one night after taping, so I approached him to say thank you. As it turned out, he remembered a fan e-mail I’d sent him years earlier, in the depths of my grief. He knew exactly who I was. Later on, when he made series regular on The West Wing and I saw him in the opening credits, I remember calling Chris just so we could literally celebrate and squeal “Josh Malina’s in the main credits!” We did the same after I met Brenda Strong (recurring character Sally Sasser) at a Desperate Housewives event in 2009, talked to series composer W.G. Snuffy Walden once, and had correspondence from Sorkin himself, who told me he thinks he’ll be writing me fan letters someday, possibly the biggest compliment I’ve ever had from the man who is my biggest idol.

One of the best moments in my life happened because of Sports Night. I’ve tracked Peter Krause’s career ever since, and on March 25, 2008, I went to the Paley Center panel for his ABC series Dirty Sexy Money. During the Q&A section, I’d just intended to do what I did with Josh Malina – stand up and thank him. However, my emotions overtook me. In front of God, the entire cast and the Paley audience, I let it all spill out of me. How the show had changed my career, helped to dig me out of a crippling depression, and helped introduce me to the most important person in my life. For some reason, that got me a standing ovation from the entire room, which helped the fact I was kind of choked up. When it was over, I was making my way toward the stage, to see if I could catch Peter and maybe get a picture with him. What happened next still stuns me when I think about it. Even with all the people mobbing him, he came to find me first. He literally came off the stage and met me halfway. He introduced himself, thanked me for what I’d said, and we talked for a minute before we took a picture together. It’s still one of the best moments of my entire life, and yes, I called Chris right afterward.

When I think of how many things in my life wouldn’t have happened because of Sports Night, I’m in awe. I know I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. I just hope that someday I can repay the favor to that amazing cast and crew. If by some chance you haven’t seen the show yet, there’s hope: Shout! Factory released an amazing 10th Anniversary DVD set in 2008. You can check it out here.

Before I wrap things up, there’s one more fandom I have to pay tribute to in this fashion: Dexter. Not only is it one of the best shows currently on TV, but it reunited me with someone I’d been looking to find for two decades. I’ve been a longtime fan of series star Desmond Harrington (pictured left) since a movie called Ghost Ship. As a result, I ended up on some fan boards for him, and started a discussion with a girl named April. We became good friends. In the process of talking about where we were from, we realized that we were from the same neighborhood. In fact, we had been friends in elementary school. A quick check of the yearbook confirmed that yes, we’d been separated for 20 years. We reunited in person at Comic-Con that same year and have been back in touch ever since.

It’s fitting that when I finally met Desmond in person, when he was working with my friend Fred Goss on ABC’s Sons & Daughters and Fred was gracious enough to introduce us, that I took April with me. Another one of the best moments of my life was the good half-hour that Desmond took after the panel to sit down with the two of us and talk about anything that crossed our minds. I’ve never known a celebrity to be more gracious with his time than he was that day, and he was the third person to tell me that I was going to be successful in this business. The picture of the two of us together is sitting on my desk as I write this, a daily reminder of the fact that someone I admire and respect also believes in me. I keep hoping to meet him in person again, just so I can tell him how much that moment meant. Hopefully, I’ll get my chance someday.

Without those two shows in my life, I know that my life would be a pale reflection of the one that I have today. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank The Powers That Be for them, for the people involved, and for the people who made such things possible. I know I owe a lot of people for the blessings that these shows and others have brought into my life, and I’m never going to forget that.

That’s my love letter to television. Now I ask you, dear readers: how has fandom changed your life? I don’t mean just that you bought the T-shirt, or met your favorite actor, or made some friends. I mean moments that you look back on weeks, months or years later, and know that you wouldn’t be the same without them. Share them in the comments below and let’s celebrate our fandom together. Who knows what might happen because of it someday?


15 Comments

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