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TCA: Keith Olbermann, Dan Harmon and Why TV Always Forgives (Analysis)

What do TV execs do when faced with stars who behave badly? They suck it up and hire them back, argues THR's chief TV critic Tim Goodman.

Keith Olbermann TCA - P 2013
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Keith Olbermann at TCA

There are all kinds of truisms in the television industry. Like no one knows what they’re doing. (Which the smarter and more philosophical ones will agree with). Or that imitation isn’t flattery so much as it’s standard operating procedure. And there’s the one that was on display Wednesday, on the first day of the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

And that's that talent is talent, no matter how difficult, prickly or uncontainable, and it will always be in demand.

PHOTOS: Keith Olbermann's Famous Feuds

Keith Olbermann was on hand for an ESPN session to formally introduce himself as the host of Olbermann, a new nightly talk show on ESPN2 that will premiere on Aug. 26 at 11 p.m. You might remember Keith Olbermann as the guy who worked at the Bristol flagship of the sports giant from 1992-97, putting SportsCenter on the map with co-host Dan Patrick, making nightly sports highlights essential viewing; he left amid charred bridges, finger-pointing and recrimination. That year he went to MSNBC to host The Big Show With Keith Olbermann, focusing on news until the channel’s obsession with Monica Lewinsky, which drove him crazy, forced a departure without hugs in 1998. So he jumped to Fox Sports Net from 1998-2001 as host of The Keith Olbermann Evening News, before leaving again without well-wishes (Rupert Murdoch: "I fired him. … He’s crazy.") He then worked for ABC Radio and ESPN Radio (a heralded return with Patrick; Olbermann left when Patrick did in 2007). That same year he worked at NBC’s Football Night in America show. He returned to MSNBC in 2003 with Countdown, which soon became the channel’s signature show and eventually was a catalyst to pitch the whole channel to the left while Fox News held down the right.

The story should be familiar enough by now -- Olbermann left acrimoniously in 2011. But he popped up rather surprisingly on Al Gore’s Current that same year (trying to put that hard-to-find cable outpost on the map) and not long after that -- 2012! -- well, Current turned out the lights on him and the two ended up in court, reaching a settlement (Gore then essentially sold Current to Al Jazeera) and here we are now with Olbermann back at ESPN on a nightly series.

PHOTOS: Keith Olbermann's TV Resume Through the Years

All of this has been gone over to death. The salient point here is that -- no matter which side is at fault -- you don’t change jobs that frequently and keep getting hired unless you’ve got an overabundance of talent. And in Olbermann’s case, he’s a polymath who has succeeded in sports and news, in television, radio and print, and is the kind of rare wellspring of talent that people keep wanting to dip into, regardless of history.

(In the interest of transparency and as I’ve said in print many times, I’ve covered Olbermann for years, and we’ve been friends for years and even play in the same yearly fantasy baseball league. That hasn’t stopped me from criticizing or praising him because nobody -- and not even Olbermann's mistakes -- can shake the foundation of my beliefs that form the basis of this column: The guy is crazy talented. He’s not going away.)

Which is why I’m looking forward to his return to ESPN (and especially to sports, since I loathe politics).

I don’t know Dan Harmon very well at all. But I do know this: also crazy talented. (And yes, before you point it out, there’s a reason I paired those words together twice.)

PHOTOS: Dan Harmon: TV's Most Controversial Showrunner

Harmon, here to promote his new animated series Rick and Morty for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block (the show premieres in December), is also famously back in business with NBC and Sony after being fired off of his own show -- Community -- for behaving in parts like a wild man, a repentant and wildly unrepentant artist who creates, destroys, apologizes, drinks (a self-described “ninja of alcoholism” -- also self-described “rude asshole” and “selfish baby”) and, in the midst of all that, finds out hard-earned but potent truths about himself. As he told The Hollywood Reporter television editor Lacey Rose in a cover story: “If I'm feeling pain inside, I say what I'm feeling; and when I say it in the way that I say it, it makes people laugh, and then that makes the pain go away,” he adds. “So whether it's through blogging or talking into a microphone, it's the thing that keeps me sane. I really look at it as a form of therapy.”

What that is, mostly, is talent. And his kind exploded all over Community, making it one of the most creatively ambitious comedies on television. That’s the kind of talent you can’t replace, not even with two people. Not even with new writers. Like Olbermann, Harmon is a singular talent.

COVER STORY: 'Community's' Dan Harmon Reveals the Wild Story Behind His Firing and Rehiring

And what do you do when you run into one of those and they, in turn, run all over your network or cable channel? You suck it up and hire them back. Because “talent will win out.” It always does, Shakespeare-sounding or not. And in a business as hyper-competitive as television -- getting more so each day -- you only win when you’ve got talent.

Welcome back, boys.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine