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People are likely to discuss the premiere of Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons, the launch of the centerpiece of the ESPN veteran’s lucrative new deal with HBO. They’re likely to pass around clips from the initial 30-minute episode, or at least they’re likely to pass around one clip from the episode, specifically Ben Affleck’s five-plus-minute increasingly red-faced rant about the NFL’s mistreatment of the New England Patriots and Tom Brady.
It’s the sort of obscenity-filled tirade that is probably happening literally this second in dozens of bars from Fall River to Brockton to Leominster to North Adams, with the same colorful language, the same anti-NFL/Roger Goodell rhetoric — gleefully abetted here by Simmons, showing his proud liberation from underneath the thumb of Big Pigskin — and the same occasional lapses into total emotional incoherence, especially when imagining the conversation one might have in the presence of Brady himself. Depending on the zip code of your bar and the time of night, I’d guessing you’d hear more and less articulate versions of Affleck’s declaration, but the passion would be the same.
AIR DATE Jun 22, 2016
That Affleck’s oratory is sure to be the biggest takeaway from the Any Given Wednesday debut makes the show plenty difficult to review, even more than the standard “You can’t judge a talk show based on an opening episode” thing we critics whip out at times like these, because I have no way of knowing if turning Affleck loose is something Simmons could ever replicate again or would ever want to. It was a bizarre anomaly, because the first five minutes had been somewhat dull, nonspecific conversation about Affleck’s decision to go into directing after his acting career made him a Hollywood punchline. For a while, Affleck seemed a bit tired and excessively made-up for the interview, which I took as a sign that he’d probably just hopped off a plane from the London shoot of Justice League, and who amongst us isn’t a bit sluggish and perhaps limitedly expressive after such a journey? The second half detoured to such extremes that one could only speculate on additional conditions encouraging it, as Simmons struggled to get in a word or two between f-bomb-spiked rambling. Affleck is one of the greatest late-night guests in the business and I can almost credit him with joy in going off the rails this completely, but off the rails he was. (That I’m completely in Affleck’s corner regarding all things Deflategate is secondary, but it may have made me more tolerant of whatever spiritual infusion was steering him. It wasn’t always comfortable to watch.)
What was possible to glean from the rest of Any Given Wednesday?
Well, there are technical aspects that obviously still need working out. I don’t know if Simmons always knew what camera he was looking into, and that was especially distracting in the opening monologue paying tribute to LeBron James’ NBA Finals heroics. The brick-walled, wood-paneled studio set looked nice enough, but the difference in comfort, both with the guests and with the technical set-ups, between the opening dual-couch chat with NBA analyst and former player Charles Barkley and the awkward kitchen table parlay with Affleck, was immense. The difference in audio quality between the two interviews was notable, distracting and jarring. The filler segments between Simmons’ monologue and the two guests — one accurately noting Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry’s struggles to find an image-defining commercial and the other weakly introducing a “Who’s Got the Belt?” segment by calling 2016 the week’s big winner — screamed out for refinement to justify their places on a TV series rather than just footnotes in an article.
If Any Given Wednesday were a live show, I’d be much more generous about the myriad points of sloppiness, but this was a pre-taped show that has been many months — or many years, per Simmons’ narrative about his dream of being on HBO — in the making, so expectations of tighter punchlines, more clearly edited film and better spatial awareness aren’t unfair.
Still, there were elements that had potential.
Anybody who has followed Simmons as he pushed from blogger to on-air talent remembers how excruciatingly uncomfortable he initially seemed. He’s much better now. Vastly. In his conversation with Barkley, but not the mess with Affleck, you could definitely see both his skills as an interviewer and his ability to push particular buttons that nobody else in his position would seek out. Simmons badgering Barkley about Old School NBA snobbery toward the contemporary game had the “Round Mound of Rebound” on his toes, and chiding Barkley for holding Larry Bird’s arms to let Dr. J pummel him in a famous 1984 brawl produced a surprised and amusingly defensive response. Depending on how you steer Barkley, he’s capable of coming across as a buffoon or as outspokenly political, and Simmons didn’t go down any avenues that would have gotten his guest in trouble. Instead, they had a reasonable back-and-forth about James’ place in the NBA pantheon that avoided ignorance or hyperbole, and that’s probably why the Affleck clip will go viral tomorrow and Barkley will not.
What Simmons did best was tap into the blending of pop culture and sports that has always been his calling card. If you’re going to watch a Bill Simmons TV series at all, you’d want it to be a show that worked in references to Seinfeld, Eddie and the Cruisers, an especially embarrassing Scottie Pippen sandwich commercial and the real, pre-MTV Teen Wolf. You probably want a little needling of Simmons’ former employer, but not too much and Simmons hinted and insinuated, but also found time to praise ESPN’s OJ: Made in America, which was also praising the 30 for 30 franchise and therefore, to some degree, himself, which wasn’t inappropriate. There was enough of his voice in evidence to satisfy the people who wanted Simmons’ voice, which had to be anybody watching on a Wednesday evening, right?
Affleck, and the subject-to-speculation nature of his mindset, hijacking the Any Given Wednesday premiere was probably the best thing to happen to Simmons and company. It will get people sharing clips and talking about the show and it will take attention away from a lack of polish that aligns with first-timers making a talk show, but perhaps not with the degree of HBO’s investment in this property. Producers can now tinker with the mechanics of the thing in peace and let the raised eyebrows point in Affleck’s direction, while also knowing that the Barkley interview and the smooth distillation of Simmons’ voice exhibit the series’ potential.
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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