The first episode of any new late-night talk show is usually a wash: Even the most experienced hosts can take weeks to find their voice. Bill Simmons, whose HBO series Any Given Wednesday just debuted, is not the most experienced TV host. But like many entertainers who cut their teeth on podcasting, Simmons has learned how to put celebrity guests at ease and coax them into being more candid—something that became obvious in the pilot when Ben Affleck went off on an impassioned, profane rant about Deflategate.
Simmons seems to be trying to do for sports what Bill Maher currently does for politics. Unlike HBO’s other late-night legend, John Oliver, Simmons is going for a looser, conversational vibe, mixing chats with celebrities (Affleck and Charles Barkley were his first guests) and nerdy monologuing about sports. During his ascendency at ESPN, where he started as an online writer and quickly became one of the network’s most popular personalities, Simmons never quite fit in. He eventually came to buckle under the commercial-break reliant structures of live sports broadcasting. At HBO, Simmons has greater freedom, and outside of Affleck’s strangely compelling Tom Brady tirade, Any Given Wednesday’s pilot was almost aggressively chill—a pleasantly meandering antidote to the usual hot-take cauldron of sports TV.
You’d be forgiven for expecting something different—HBO sold the show on the back of a Bull Durham-style promo in which Simmons barked at the camera about what he “believes” and spouted a bunch of eminently uncontroversial opinions (one was that Kanye West being too self-aware of his own musical genius). In an appearance on Katie Nolan’s Garbage Time podcast, Simmons said he had recorded the promo months ago, after HBO had signed him but before the show had taken shape. Any Given Wednesday does have some direct-to-camera monologuing, but its host is aiming much gentler humor at an audience of deep sports nerds, and, at least in this opening episode, sticking to his strengths.
As an ESPN personality, Simmons was an online star who never quite seemed at home on television. He looked uncomfortable and annoyed on two seasons of NBA Countdown (the network’s flagship basketball show), struggling to get a word in among a crowded panel of commentators. He founded Grantland, an award-winning, ESPN-owned website that covered sports and pop culture with voracious intelligence but never seemed to gel with the company’s larger brand. After leaving NBA Countdown, Simmons hosted the sporadic Grantland Basketball Hour, a talk show that bounced around the schedule to little fanfare. By betting on the star, who will produce 20 episodes of Any Given Wednesday over the next seven months, HBO sent the message that all he needed to succeed was some room to breathe. And so it’s given him plenty.
The set of Any Given Wednesday is cavernous (there’s a whole office behind some glass doors that Simmons doesn’t even visit), but he isn’t playing to a live audience as Maher or Oliver do. His opening monologue had the air of stand-up comedy, but eschewed the “OTS” presentation that most of late night opts for (“OTS,” short for “over-the-shoulder,” refers to the constantly changing graphic that hovers next to the host). Simmons waxed rhapsodic about LeBron James’s performance in the NBA finals, and later poked fun at Steph Curry’s shortcomings as an advertising brand, but as he did so, the show cut to TV footage and vintage YouTube clips. Perhaps he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he’s no comedian—even the best of them struggle with the stand-up monologue. Simmons isn’t doing the “set-up, joke, set-up, joke” routine of his peers, but rather nerdy, sports-themed deep dives that are singular to him.
The show’s interviews were much better than the monologue, letting Simmons sit back and do what he’s best at—pepper outspoken celebrities with questions on his favorite topics. Charles Barkley arrived to do his usual shtick about the NBA’s lack of toughness and to weigh in on LeBron’s legacy, while Affleck gave the kind of rambling, bizarre performance that any late-night host dreams of, talking about the ups and downs of his film career before launching into an anti-NFL tirade about the railroading of Tom Brady. Perhaps the intimacy of the set, the lax censorship standards of HBO, and the lack of a live audience lulled Affleck into sounding off; perhaps it was something else entirely. Either way, it was exciting, amusing stuff, far better than any manufactured opinion Simmons would have been required to serve up on a 2-minute segment for NBA Countdown.
There were moments that chafed—in his monologue on Curry’s breakdown in the NBA finals, Simmons snarkily referred to him “losing control” of his wife Ayesha (when she posted and deleted a tweet about the game being “rigged”).That’s the kind of cheap language he should leave at ESPN, where broadcasters like Stephen A. Smith embarrass themselves on a nightly basis with misogynistic advice for athletes on how to keep their wives in check. But it also stuck out because the rest of Any Given Wednesday so consciously avoided the toxicity of the world Simmons has left behind. Even its most charged moment—Affleck’s rant—seemed right out of a conversation at a Boston sports bar between two excitable fans, rather than the bloviating lectures about grit and toughness that are the norm on SportsCenter or Pardon the Interruption.
The question is whether Simmons has enough material to replace all the hot air of a typical sports show. Halfway through the first episode, he pulled out a pair of Curry’s much-derided new shoes, mocked as being fit only for the dullest of dads when they hit stores a few weeks ago, and admitted his fondness for them. From the look of this first episode, Curry’s new sneakers are to branded footwear as Any Given Wednesday is to sports TV—it’s not going for controversy, and it’ll probably earn a few jeers from the snarkier sections of sports fandom, but it’s a welcome addition to sports TV all the same.