Bill Simmons shows he can get under the skin in his HBO debut
When Bill Simmons, the former ESPN columnist and Grantland editor-in-chief, signed a deal to produce a half-hour talk show with HBO, the story was mostly about what ESPN had let slip away. Simmons, with his jocular, off-the-cuff delivery, holds a special place in the heart of the thinking sports fan. To be exact, he’s a fan’s fan, as comfortable rattling off statistics as he is settling into an impassioned defense of his favorite team.
As a professional haver-of-opinions, Simmons was tremendously qualified for his role at ESPN — weighing in on not just sports but politics, pop culture, and parenting, whenever and however he felt like it. Ultimately, he was rather too qualified in ruffling feathers for ESPN’s taste. After numerous close calls, Simmons criticized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence video on his podcast, “The B.S. Report.” ESPN responded first by suspending him for three weeks and then cutting him loose the following year.
That’s all water under the bridge now — sort of. Because while Simmons seems completely unperturbed by his ignominious ejection and subsequent emergency landing, HBO seems to be hoping that the charming and hackles-raising snark that got Simmons into trouble will keep its well-educated and politically savvy viewers engaged. The promos for the show are aggressive and confrontational; Simmons looks directly into the camera and declaims some of his least popular opinions, from the mostly ludicrous to the vaguely sensible. He is also not afraid to swear a blue streak. But most of all, Bill Simmons isn’t here to pussyfoot around, and he wants you to know it: How often do the teasers for a talk show feature the lead staring back at the viewer and cursing with tautly contained anger? “I believe billionaires should pay for their own f–ing football stadiums,” Simmons snaps, unleashing all of the pent-up rancor that ESPN wouldn’t quite let him unleash.
It’s brilliant, really: Simmons turned the notice for what got him fired into a job description at another company. Not a bad move, if you have the gumption to swing it. But while Simmons is as reliably knee-jerk as ever — and perhaps more comfortable on-camera than he ever has been, though there’s still a long way to go — his now-unleashed edge comes with its own set of problems. Much like Bill Maher, another of HBO’s talking heads, Simmons’ presence on the network is both electrifying and immediately divisive; how many white men who are convinced they know everything can HBO possibly employ at once?
There’s a moment in the relatively engaging first episode of “Any Given Wednesday” that belies just how blinkered both Simmons and his new parent network can be about anything outside the scope of their experience. When Simmons observes that Steph Curry, in the NBA finals, “lost control” of his game, he adds that Curry also “lost control” of his wife, Ayesha, because of a controversial statement she tweeted. It’s one of those statements where the only possible reaction is to stare vacantly into space, hoping for some deus ex machina to irrevocably alter what has just occurred. In 2016 on HBO, it’s part of the network’s frustrating and at this point clearly deliberate blind spot towards its female viewership. (“Ballers,” which returns for season two next month, will be testing viewers’ collective nerves in just this capacity.) If there is anything to regret in the unleashed charm of Bill Simmons on HBO, it’s that there’s no longer anyone in the room who will tell him he can’t be sexist for a not-very-good joke.
The frustrating thing is that everything else about “Any Given Wednesday” is really promising. Simmons’ guests are not there for interviews, but for conversations; the easy vibe is broken up by little segments from Simmons that mix in pre-produced graphics while commenting on the state of sporting life. In last night’s episode, a conversation with former NBA star Charles Barkley about the finals was followed by a segment where Simmons trashed every ad spot that Steph Curry has been in, whether that’s for Under Armour or Muscle Milk. Crucially, it ended on a loving note: Simmons’ thesis was that this is the best shooter in the history of the NBA, so just film him doing that, advertisers!
It was a refreshing kind of approach, and one that HBO, sans advertisers, is more free to pursue. The mash-up of ad spot, music video, and soundbites also made for a viewing experience that felt layered and engaging, not unlike browsing social media. The format, and the snark behind it, allows “Any Given Wednesday” to keep apace with the robust online conversation around sports teams and their leading stars; Simmons’ sly little dig about Curry’s new line of sneakers being boring is lifted right from the prevailing opinion of the Internet.
And while Barkley was tolerable and the segments choppy but intriguing, Simmons’ interview with Ben Affleck about the New England Patriots and the scandal termed “Deflategate” turned into one of the most fascinating character studies I’ve seen on a talk show. Simmons and Affleck are both Bostonians, and their shared affinity for the Patriots creates an automatic kind of kinship. But given minimal prodding, Affleck went off about the controversy, running up and down rhetorical flourishes about the NFL’s treachery with the cadence and confidence of a barfly. Simmons nodded and smiled throughout most of the interview, letting Affleck talk himself out; at one point, the actor referred to Jennifer Garner as his wife, willfully forgetting, apparently, the divorce and his own infidelity.
It’s quite the portrait of a sadsack — honestly, it’s hard not to come away from the interview thinking that maybe Affleck needs help. But it’s also testament to Simmons’ preternatural comfort conversing with prickly, guarded celebrities, whether they are actors or athletes. Simmons can’t interview Affleck every week, probably, but such a strong installment right out the gate suggests that Simmons’ show could very well become a must-watch for undiluted, uncensored voices commenting on the sports, politics, and culture of the day.
Because best of all, the show just feels fun. The director of last night’s episode probably was a bit too enamored of the (admittedly lush) set, complete with brass hexahedron full of succulents and various old baseballs lying about artfully. But the rough edges belie a lot of spirit underneath; Simmons seemed almost bursting to weigh in on the news, eager to have opinions with, and at, the audience.
Simmons will have a recurring segment on the show where he hands out a belt to the champ of the week. This time, the belt went to an abstract concept: The year 2016, where not only do the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors and Trump comes within spitting distance of the White House, but Bill Simmons gets his own show on HBO, the network he used to watch for softcore porn. Simmons isn’t going to pull any punches, and he is over the moon about it.