“Any Given Wednesday” Has a Bill Simmons Problem

Let’s acknowledge the irony right off: “Bill Simmons sucks on TV” is the perfect Bill Simmons opinion. It’s a safe viewpoint, maybe bordering on a consensus. Much like saying “Roger Goodell sucks as NFL Commissioner,” it’s distanced about a half decade from being remotely controversial or edgy or smart to say. It’s written from afar and provides the audience with no added value—that is, beyond what one asshole (me) thinks of another (him). And best of all, with the passage of time it can become the preface to a whole follow-up “debate,” probably via emails exchanged with another pseudo-intellectual about whether Bill Simmons’ TV Presence is properly rated or whether it’s been perennially disparaged to the point that it’s now, oh my god, secretly underrated, delivered in a manner that consumes a cool 500 words without producing a substantive conclusion. Mostly, though, given the myriad other sports and/or pop culture topics worth covering, writing about Simmons’ on-air impotence is a tedious, inconsequential, and onanistic exercise—a complete waste of space on the Internet. So, fair warning, the following post is a depository of undercooked, calorically empty quasi-nuggets that would be exponentially more unpalatable if expressed via another medium—like, say, nasally voiced on a podcast or, God forbid, shown on HBO. ** Fat people are funny. Roger Goodell is a narcissistic liar. “The Wire” and “Mad Men” were enjoyable TV shows that are now over. “Vice Principals” is airing on HBO on Sundays at 10:30. JJ Redick would be a much better TV host than Bill Simmons. These are all insights you’ll learn from an episode of “Any Given Wednesday,” the new weekly 30-minute HBO show that is—if only because it flaunts a damn near genetic aversion to topics of consequence and controversy—a comedy. Along with the accompanying website The Ringer, which retained Grantland’s esoteric commentary but roundly hemorrhaged the former website’s distinguished writers (Bryan Curtis excluded), “Any Given Wednesday” is Simmons’ latest venture—an attempt to distance himself from the creative shackles of ESPN while never approaching the boundaries of his comfort zone. Calling it “vain” would be like calling Ted Kaczynski “troubled.” A bit of justification for this piece: in the sports blog world, there is no shortage of takes on the Rorschach test that is Bill Simmons, the authors’ opinions ranging from fawning to nostalgic to scorched-earth-savage. Many takes will, to some degree, include the near-requisite Simmons caveats and/or justifications: “Sure, he’s not great on TV, but he’s a talented writer” or “He’s not a great writer now, but he was back on Page 2” or, even, the most concessive “His writing is bad, but he’s a good judge of talent.” As Simmons expands his purview, these takes have occupied an ever-increasing space, as much as anything in the sphere of Bill Simmons can be deserving of a space. But for whatever reason, the ceaseless spray of Simmonsian discussion has dried up with regard to “Any Given Wednesday.” I’m worried that viewers may interpret this lack of commentary as a hung jury of sorts, as if there is a reasoned, underworld blogosphere debate taking place that will soon bubble up to the surface and deliver a decisive yea/nay re “Wednesday.” To be clear: that is not the case. “Any Given Wednesdayis uncommonly awful, a one-show repudiation of today’s “Golden Age of Television.” It is a Bill Maher show with twice the smug, in which Simmons ham-handedly preaches to the choir without a live studio audience. For one who is such a “controversial” character, the opinions of Simmons, primarily delivered via his monologues, are nothing but well-trod liberalisms. Episode 3: Serena Williams is important. Episode 8: NFL games are both expensive and draconian. I eagerly await his groundbreaking manifesto this fall on the NCAA’s unfairness to student-athletes. “AGW” is also a Jimmy Fallon show, full of fluffy tête-à-têtes in which Simmons browns his nose with (on?) a star athlete or B-level actor without the ensuing, requisite palate cleanser of viral lip-sync battles. An approximation: “Wow, it’s Seth Rogen and Ricky Williams.” “Yup.” “Yup.” “Have you ever, like, smoked a ton of weed and ordered a pizza?” “Hahaha.” Forays outside this incredibly bereft creative box yielded an eight-minute Deflategate skit with fewer laughs than an airline safety PSA, so a path to improvement isn’t exactly clear. As subjective as comedy is, I’ll be diplomatic and say the debate over whether Simmons is funny, let alone funny enough for TV, is ongoing. (His only credit to date is as a staff writer on the middling first season of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) The humor in his ESPN pieces germinated from quirky connections: imperfect, laborious parallels between sports and pop culture that, at best, were offbeat enough to be endearing. Simmons doesn’t write jokes so much as he makes wry, verbose observations—Garrison Keillor NPR comedy, essentially—aiming for smirks and chuckles. When your competition is writers on the Internet, particularly sportswriters, earning smirks and chuckles is good. Still, the lack of honest-to-God humor wouldn’t be as obvious if the conversations and commentary were actually stimulating. But they’re not. Simmons’ understanding of what’s interesting to discuss on television overlaps precisely with what’s interesting to Simmons: Where does LeBron rank all-time? What does JJ Redick think about Kevin Durant? What if the U.S. Olympic basketball team included only under-25 players? Sometimes the interest is just the premise of the interview itself, such as when he jointly interviewed Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” and Michael K. Williams of “The Wire.” The idea itself isn’t bad; these are great actors talking about their work! But “The Wire” ended eight years ago. The segment incessantly raised the question “Why these shows?,” and the answer, pretty clearly, is simply that Simmons liked them. More important, there’s no audience, as Simmons is rightly uncomfortable doing a live show or even a taped one in front of a live audience. Instead, he tapes the show in a cavernous room that belongs to a guy who Most Dangerous Games his houseguests, probably, asking questions that no one asks, waiting for a response that—even if funny—can be met only with an awkward pause! It’s an obvious recipe for disaster, and it’s asinine that the structure both was approved and hasn’t yet changed. The show is almost a game of chicken, where Simmons wants TV to accommodate his podcasting tendencies rather than adapt to the strictures of a new medium. So far, neither has happened, and a smattering of viewers has witnessed the resulting carnage. For a man who gleefully watched Rick Reilly’s devolution to sustained hackery in the mid-aughts, Simmons is remarkably, blissfully patient with his own descent. He has said in interviews that he wants to reevaluate the show and its setup after his first ten weeks. There’s credence to the thought, but also, you know, it’s not as if three months’ airtime on HBO is something he or anyone is owed. He’s assuming he’s relevant now, and he’s also assuming this will continue. For sports fans, his patience with sub-mediocrity and his stubbornness against pushing himself are frustrating but illuminating: it’s probably not a good sign when you’re your own softest critic. *** Lucas Hubbard is a writer who's truly sorry he brought that Deflategate video to your attention. You should follow him on Twitter.

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