Bill Simmons made his highly anticipated return to television with the debut of his new weekly show on HBO, “Any Given Wednesday.”
While most of the buzz has centered on Ben Affleck’s f-bomb-laced Deflategate rant, the reviews of the entire episode are starting to come in and some are pretty brutal. However, there are also several reasons to think that these reviews are premature and that we need to let the show breathe for a few more episodes before passing a firm judgment.
Time’s review says the show “brings out the worst in host Bill Simmons“:
“Simmons, on the first episode of his new weekly talk showAny Given Wednesday, barely meets the camera’s gaze, and his delivery is stiff and halting; he seemed overmatched by the most basic aspects of TV talk. Watching him now, it’s surprising to recall that Simmons is one of the most powerful figures in TV sports coverage.”
Slate called the premiere “a real dog’s breakfast“:
“Through its first half-hourAny Given Wednesdayis a real dog’s breakfast. To put it in the terms of tonight’s NBA draft, if theRinger is a blue-chip talent with range and heaps of upside,Any Given Wednesday is a raw and lumbering “project” that currently lacks a clear position.”
The L.A. Times review declares that “Bill Simmons just isn’t good on television“:
“The debut of “Any Given Wednesday” was an odd and painful thing to watch … From his bro-dad uniform (gray T-shirt, plaid button-down) to his man-cave set (what was with the antique luggage?) Simmons was carefully groomed to seem frat-boy casual. Alas, from the moment he began his opening monologue, casual was the opposite of what he seemed .. With the worst case of first-night jitters since the flop-sweat scene in “Broadcast News,” Simmons stared deeply into the teleprompter from which he read a bizarrely cadenced and at times inaudible, monologue about LeBron James and his team’s amazing seventh-game win of the NBA championship.”
The reviews weren’t all bad. Will Leitch called the show “refreshingly normal” in a sports television world where too many shows try to be different.
But here is the thing all the reviews are missing: what we saw in the first episode is almost certainly not what we will see moving forward.
First of all, the format had a major change from what has been expected. The first interview segment is supposed to be a pair of guests to create a bit of a round-table discussion on a specific topic.
From The Hollywood Reporter, just two weeks prior to the premier episode:
“The show’s first interview segment will feature two guests on a given topic – [Simmons has] been toying with such pairings as Mark Cuban and Vice’s Shane Smith on how successful people become overextended, or Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers on the degree of difficulty of the quarterback position – while the second will focus on just one guest, ideally from the world of sports, tech or Hollywood. Simmons envisions running each at about 10 to 12 minutes, though he intends to tape them much longer the day before in a bid to get the most out of his guests. Citing Howard Stern and Charlie Rose as role models, he says of his conversations, “I want them to feel like a podcast.” “
The first segment only had Charles Barkley and neither interview felt like a shorter version of a longer, podcast-like conversation. Rather, this episode felt like something more scripted, with cliches that informed sports and TV fans loathe (did we really need another extended debate on where LeBron James ranks among the greatest NBA players ever or another biased rant on Deflategate?). Rather, these topics felt more like the kind that often resonate with a more casual audience, the very people Simmons will need to reach for the show to be truly successful.
The type of guests, especially Affleck, is something that should also be unusual for most episodes.
Michael Lombardo is HBO’s former president of programming and was instrumental in the recruitment of Simmons. He explained to The Hollywood Reporter why he was drawn to Simmons, and a big factor was that Simmons doesn’t need A-list celebrities to create an interesting conversation.
“[Lombardo is] no sports fan, but he’d heard two installments of Simmons’ B.S. Report podcast – an interview with Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka and another with Girls creator-star Lena Dunham – and was sufficiently impressed. “I just thought, ‘This guy can go from Lena to Serge Ibaka with such passion and dexterity, I have to meet him,’ ” says Lombardo.
In recent months, Lombardo has been urging Simmons to stop stressing over that guest list. “I just keep saying, ‘That’s not why anybody is going to tune in,’ ” says Lombardo, hopeful that Simmons won’t get caught up in the booking wars for A-list talent that consume so many of the other talk shows on the air. “I go back to my Serge Ibaka reference point: He’s not a household name, he’s not Stephen Curry or LeBron James, yet it was a dazzling interview that only Bill can do.”
And that is where Simmons is at his best, when it just seems like we are eavesdropping on two interesting people who are chatting about something we are interested in, and that is what we are yet to see on “Any Given Wednesday.”
Was the first episode of Simmons’ new show good? Meh. But it is also almost certainly not what we are going to get moving forward. Once it settles into something more akin to a casual conversation and less about trying to hard to be edgy or comedic headline-grabby, it will be like his podcast, only in a better setting and on TV, and that’s when it will start to be great.