Deconstructing Dan Rydell (Sports Night)

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Recently, I re-watched the complete series of Sports Night on DVD and wrote about it here. Only… I didn’t. I accidentally left out an entire eight-episode disc. I figured this out this when it finally hit me that I’d somehow missed the very scene that had inspired me to watch the series over again: Danny (Josh Charles) at a bar with his therapist (because he has to convince himself they’re dating in order to see her), talking about what his friends called “Hit and Run Danny.” As I watched the episodes on this disk, I was witnessing a very rare deconstruction of a male character.

Normally – and this has caused a little confusion – on this site, I use the term “deconstruction” to refer to a character who started out good but became nothing more than a plot device or an appendage to another character. In Dan’s case, I’m talking about a true character analysis. As Dan goes through therapy with Abby, our image of the smooth Dan who’s so together and funny and good with people slowly disintegrates, to be replaced by something at least fairly ugly.

Dan has some sympathetic issues. He blames himself for his brother’s death, and at least one of the manifestations of his guilt is just tragic: after his brother died, he lost his ability to socialize properly. He’d be just fine for two or three minutes around people, then have to hit the road. Once he got off by himself, he’d shake, maybe sweat, maybe even need to throw up. His brother died when he was a teen: he’s never gotten past this “hit and run” behavior.

But there’s a darker side to his pathology. When he finally starts actually seeing Abby in her office, no longer lying to himself that it’s a date, he continues flirting with her rather than talking about his issues:

Abby: Is it important to you that you get every attractive woman you meet to like you?

Dan: Mnh-mnh. It’s important that I get the unattractive ones to like me, too.

He can’t function without the belief that every woman wants him. The fact that Abby seems totally unaffected by him drives him crazy. And who can guess what pain and suffering he’s inflicted on women by doing whatever it takes to get them liking him, whether he even remotely likes them or not? In the first season, we got a glimpse of this when we met Bobbi Bernstein (Lisa Edelstein), a woman who claimed she and Dan had had a fling years ago in Spain, which Dan flatly denied (“I’ve never even been to Spain”). In the end, she produced a photograph of the two of them in Spain and succeeded in jogging his memory: he hadn’t recognized her because she was so much hotter now than she had been when he slept with her and never so much as called afterwards.

There’s something vampiric about a person who has to conquer the affections of every human being he meets, whether he has any affection for them or not.

Dan then spends an episode consciously avoiding flirtation. He tells every woman he normally flirts with that he’s not going to flirt with her today, but he doesn’t want her to get the wrong idea. “You mean, that you don’t like me?” they invariably ask. And his response in every case: “Not so much as the idea that I don’t want you to like me.” And that’s about the size of it.

Thinking back, I realized another story from Season One shows this side of Dan, and how it hurts him. Dan starts hitting on a woman he’s convinced is mad about him. Turns out she has no idea who he is, and turns him down for dates well over a dozen times, which makes him think he wants her even more. Eventually, she gives in, and they go out for a while, and he thinks he’s in love… and then she goes back to her emotionally abusive husband Dan didn’t know she had.

My point here is not so much that Dan’s pathological need to be attractive to every woman on earth might hurt and confuse women (clearly, it leaves Dan wide open to manipulation, too), but that it’s just so rare to see a man openly dissected on TV that way. Dan’s a smooth guy. He’s a ladies’ man, always offering romantic advice to other guys. He’s successful and together. Most shows would hint that there might be some insecurities there, but they wouldn’t analyze it this deeply. That sort of emasculation is generally reserved for female characters.

Comments

  1. scarlett says

    I like it when they portray men as just as screwed-up as women, victims of society, of a childhood/incident, etc. That’s why I love Boston Legal so much, because the two male leads are so thoroughly fucked up that they make all the women in the office seem remarkably well-adjusted.

  2. AJ says

    In the first season, we got a glimpse of this when we met Bobbi Bernstein (Lisa Edelstein), a woman who claimed she and Dan had had a fling years ago in Spain, which Dan flatly denied (“I’ve never even been to Spain”). In the end, she produced a photograph of the two of them in Spain and succeeded in jogging his memory: he hadn’t recognized her because she was so much hotter now than she had been when he slept with her and never so much as called afterwards.

    I know this is a really old article, but I watched these episodes recently myself and came across it while reading the archives.

    I wanted to add that the show makes more of an apology for Dan in this instance. It’s explained that he was visiting France and one night got very drunk, and his friends took him to Spain without Dan ever realizing he’d crossed the border. He met Bobbi there and slept with her, but drunkenly forgot most of the night. By the time they met again, she’d lost weight and when she said they’d met in Spain, he immediately dismissed it saying he’d never been to Spain, and never budged from his certainty that she was either lying or crazy until she proved otherwise.

    It was interesting how they handled that storyline over several episodes. Bobbi repeatedly claimed that they’d slept together and Dan kept saying that she was obsessed with him and crazy, and since Dan was one of the main characters, the audience is led to believe that Bobbi is just mistaken, lying, or fixated. When Bobbi produced the photograph of the two of them together, Dan realized she’d been honest all along. It was a nice antidote to storylines where a woman has “fatal attraction” for the guy or is crying wolf. Dan had to own up that he’d been wrong and apologize.

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