August 27, 2013 9:40am PT by Tim Goodman
Keith Olbermann Returns to ESPN as, Well, Keith Olbermann
"As I was saying."
With that, Keith Olbermann kicked off his nightly ESPN2 series -- officially consecrating his reunion with the network that launched his career before an acrimonious split years ago -- with a little bit of everything and a whole lot of himself.
The launch of Olbermann featured a number of his old SportsCenter chestnuts, a nod to his recent news past ("Good night and good luck") and perhaps -- if any new nightly show in its debut can set a course that it will actually follow -- a look at what's to come.
That last bit is essential. Olbermann might be different by Friday than it was on Monday. In two or three weeks or months, it could look entirely different. You can't judge a daily show on its first day beyond offering a quick take and a reminder that things are fluid in this genre.
Which, come to think of it, is what exactly? Olbermann is part talk show with guests (ESPN contributor Jason Whitlock and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Monday), part highlight show and part riff-fest, with an odd smattering of segments that may or may not last the duration of the show. The ability to change and adapt for these kinds of shows is essential. They need to find their footing, figure out what segments work and then emphasize all the parts that click and make sense for the audience.
The first show was all over the map, with some elements working and others hopefully headed for the scrap heap. (Let this be yet another transparent reminder that Olbermann and I are friends and have known each other for a long time. You might think I'm being too easy on him and he might think I'm being too hard him, or vice versa. The simple fact is that I've covered much of his career on television and liked most but not all of it. But it's not like I'm going to wake up tomorrow and hate him. I've said forever that Olbermann is a singular talent unlike much of anything else on television, which is refreshing. Your results may vary.)
On Monday night's launch, Olbermann joked about the fact that politics had randomly found its way into the first segment, though not as anyone on the right expected (the host discussed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's comments about a New York Daily News beat writer who covers the Jets -- comments Olbermann agreed with); referenced the VMAs; gave a nod to an LL Cool J lyric ("Don't call it a comeback!"); and even wore the exact same leather jacket he donned when famously launching ESPN2 with the words, "Welcome to the end of our careers."
Where Olbermann will likely work best on a nightly basis was illustrated in the very first segment, where he mocked the often ridiculous nature of sports coverage in New York -- in this instance, Jets head coach Rex Ryan having to defend himself for leaving quarterback Mark Sanchez in too long during a preseason game. When Sanchez -- a famous whipping boy for the New York sports media -- wound up hurting his shoulder, it led to the media's ludicrous grilling of Ryan, which in turn produced Ryan's ludicrous defense of himself and, ultimately, a gigantic, manufactured and ironic mess of a story that Olbermann surgically eviscerated.
Given the nature of sports, we should see a lot more of that.
While the interviews with Whitlock and Cuban were standard fare, there were some highlights (rather wincingly dubbed "Keithlights") that allowed Olbermann to deploy some of his signature quipping; the return of his "Worst Person in the World" segment, this time geared toward sports (which should provide him the same kind of easy fodder that politics did); a lovely little obit on one of his early teachers; and a series of other segments, the best of which focused on a rock music video featuring former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher in eyeliner, causing Olbermann to let out a kind of frightened howl every time the camera cut to Cowher, who did indeed look ridiculous.
Again, this first night was expectedly all over the map. The parts that should be scrutinized a little more closely going forward were the ones too cloyingly about Olbermann. He's the host, the show bears his name, viewers know all about him (hey, there was even a recent cover story in The Hollywood Reporter!), so there's little need to call the highlights "Keithlights" or have a "This Week in Keith History" segment that perhaps was meant to mock his ESPN past or his old mustache or what not, but seemed unnecessarily indulgent. There was a "Time Marches On" segment that seemed out of place -- or was just one more segment name that seemed forced.
These things should work themselves out as Olbermann progresses. As the host joked in the middle of the show -- "Wait, we're doing this every night?" Indeed he is. And there's little doubt the sports world will allow Olbermann to be both scathing and silly and have plenty of both topics and targets on most nights. A show like this generally finds a rhythm eventually. Since Olbermann will be allowed to cover more than just highlights and random sports topics, that rhythm may take longer to develop. But that shouldn't be an issue. It's a daily show and it's not like Olbermann is going anywhere soon. I mean, right?