One minor follow-up on this past week’s Feature, on Rachel Nichols and her performance on PTI:
I mentioned in that piece that ESPN’s erstwhile darling Bill Simmons made little impression on his few sojourns as guest host of PTI, a fact that deserves extra notice now that Simmons has his own show on HBO, Any Given Wednesday.
Though I have been critical of Simmons in the past, I decided I needed to give AGW a chance. It is, after all, being televised by HBO, an outfit that has shown a good eye for serial television before. Plus, on a venue where he could say anything he wants, perhaps Simmons could produce some must-see sports TV.
Alas, after attempts at two episodes, I have to report that it looks like that will not be the case.I say “attempts” because I was not able to make it through the second episode I tried to watch, the one featuring Caitlyn Jenner as the main guest. The opening bit, with Simmons and guests J.J. Redick and some other guy (can’t remember the name) riffing on…on…well, to be frank, I can’t even remember what they were riffing on. That’s how bland and unremarkable the whole thing was. It was like watching three dweebs sit in someone’s basement and talk sports, except it was exactly as entertaining as you would expect that to be–that is to say, not up to premium channel standards. By the time the interview with Jenner came around, I’d had more than enough.
That failure to launch was only episode number two of my check-in with Simmons. The first show I took in featured a lengthy, and unimaginably boring, interview with Aaron Rodgers. That assessment seems almost oxymoronic; Simmons is supposed to be this colorful and idiosyncratic sports commentator, and Rodgers is known for being among the most well-spoken and at least mildly entertaining athletes on the scene today. And yet, when put together on AGW a few weeks ago, the pairing resulted in a discussion that left me barely able to stay awake for the entire segment. If there was anything else shown on that episode, it was so low impact that I can’t even remember it.
In sum, Any Given Wednesday is simply boring. Not exactly what the HBO execs had in mind when they shelled out a lot of money to bring Simmons on board. What exactly is the problem?
Well, for one thing, Simmons’ show is built around interviews, particularly the one, major interview segment each week. This is a problem, because Simmons is not a good interviewer. That makes sense, because a good interviewer has to make the conversation about the interviewee, and Simmons is really all about himself, specifically his idiosyncratic view of sports and life. That doesn’t really bring out the best in the interview guest.
It also doesn’t help that Simmons, in being all about himself, is also constantly concerned with demonstrating his pop culture bona fides. You can get away with that when you sprinkle a joke or riff or two into your work, but when you aggressively try to shoehorn those references into every item of sports journalism–should really be “journalism”–it guarantees that too much of your efforts are going to fall flat.
In fairness, I should say that this is an opinion derived from only one and a half episodes. And the show is still in its infancy; it’s entirely possible that, given time, Simmons will grow into his niche and make Any Given Wednesday a show that’s really worth watching. But somehow, I doubt that’s going to happen.
Just for contrast: Nichols came to her PTI appearances as a television veteran; she was ready to step into that space, and she hit it out of the park. Simmons, though he comes from a writing background, has also been on TV for a long time now, in various venues; but his work on Any Given Wednesday does not show someone who is fully formed as a television personality. He is still just that awkward blogger who just happened to catch a big break.
So as with sports in general, so too with sports broadcasting: step out onto the field and show us what you’ve got. If you’re really good, you’ll score and win. But, on the other hand, if you don’t have much of anything, soon enough you will be exposed.