I love Bill Simmons even though I could give a rat’s ass about Boston sports. That’s how strong of a personality Simmons is. I was an avid reader of the dearly-departed Grantland when Simmons was still employed by ESPN and listened to several of the podcasts hosted by some of the blog’s most popular writers (shout out to David Jacoby and Wesley Morris!).
When Simmons and Grantland got the axe at the Mothership, I was saddened but soon followed the esteemed leader and several members of his old crew over to The Ringer, his newly-born sports and pop culture site (please, please get a new color scheme though. The neon green is garish). I was especially happy to find out that several contributors like Andy Greenwald, Chris Ryan and Juliet Litman would continue to record their excellent pop culture podcasts as a side project while under The Ringer’s umbrella network. When Simmons announced his new HBO show “Any Given Wednesday”, I said “why not?” to giving it a try.
I cringed through Episode One. It just wasn’t that good. Simmons has an immense talent for securing the talented–Charles Barkley and Ben Affleck for the inaugural episode–and engaging them with a rapport that’s fun to listen on his podcast, but the new show doesn’t do much to mine the gold. Instead, just when the conversation with a tufted leather-couched Barkley was flowing, the show abruptly panned to a rehearsed segment with Simmons’ narrating with his deviated septum hyponasal charm (sidenote: the makeup and the lighting need to improve on set as well–I was distracted by the beads of sweat on top of Barkley’s upper lip the entire time and Simmons face was approaching Donald Trump-orange in shade).
The “hot take” segments about Steph Curry’s new dad sneakers and the like are only slightly amusing with quick, YouTube-style cutaways, sprinkled with a little bit of cursing (it is HBO after all), but the worst part of the scripted lines is really Simmons’ delivery. It just sounded painfully wooden and stiff. In Episode One, you could just tell that Simmons was nervous on set as he leaned against the man-cavish furniture that adorned the set . He didn’t have the charisma, timing or confidence that many stand-up comics-to-converted television show hosts like Bill Maher and John Oliver have honed over the years to deliver witty lines in front of a camera. Simmons lacked those skills and it was embarrassingly transparent on the show.
Ben Affleck’s later slurred “Deflategate” curse-filled tirade also seemed like a desperate ploy to drum up some publicity for the new show–almost like producers knew that the clip might become viral the next day (sidenote: Affleck mentioned his “wife” in the interview –is he and Jen Garner back together?!). Episode Two fared only slightly better.
I was, again, interested in the guests: entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban and author Malcolm Gladwell. The banter between the two was approaching an apex of heatedness, when again Simmons had to pull the plug to shuffle on to the next segment. And, perhaps the quick segue is an attempt to prompt viewers to visit the online extended clips, but it’s still annoying. I know that the show is constricted by the thirty-minute time slot, but it totally undermines Simmons’ ultimate on-air talent of guiding interesting dialogue between guests. It’s a shame. Simmons once again bumbled through some scripted mumbo jumbo until an oddly-staged quickfire Q&A session with Bill Hader who sat across from Simmons at the most clunky desk ever. The ever-so amiable Hader, definitely game to throw Simmons a bone, was also coerced into doing an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger when telling a story about his work in the past as a production assistant.
Will I trudge into Episode Three? Maybe. It might start to get its groove in the ensuing episodes. The fact that the show is an easy watch on HBO Go makes me lean towards “yes” because I want to support the guy that I’ve listened to for years. But, I think I may want to “listen to” more than “watch” Simmons in the future. And maybe “read” as well. After all, that’s where he started–as a writer as The Sports Guy.
You can watch “Any Given Wednesday” with Bill Simmons on HBO Wednesdays (duh!) at 10 p.m. . or on hbonow.com