Keith Olbermann Returns to ESPN As, Well, Keith Olbermann

Tim Goodman
The Hollywood Reporter
Keith Olbermann Returns to ESPN As, Well, Keith Olbermann

"As I was saying."

Keith Olbermann kicked off his nightly ESPN2 series -- and his reunion with the network that launched his career before an acrimonious end 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 other than 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, part riff-fest and an odd smattering of segments that may or may not last the duration of the show. Olbermann isn't an entirely original idea nor complete odd duck in the format game, which could eventually be its strongest suit. 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 transparency 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 or neither. 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 was able to joke about the fact politics had randomly jumped into the first segment, though not as anyone on the right expected (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 on the very first segment, where he mocked the often ridiculous nature of sports coverage in New York and, in this instance, Jets head coach Rex Ryan having to defend himself for leaving quarterback Mark Sanchez in too long during a preseason game, which ended with Sanchez -- a famous whipping boy for the New York sports media -- getting hurt and thus turned miraculously into a saint who needed protecting, which in turn spawned the ludicrous grilling of Ryan, then 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. 

The interviews with Whitlock and Cuban were standard fare, there were some highlights (rather wincingly dubbed "Keithlights") that allowed some of Olbermann's signature quipping to reappear; 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 segments where, in the best of that mash-up, there was a rock music video featuring former Steelers head coach Bill Cower in eyeliner and Olbermann letting out a kind of frightened howl ever time the camera cut to Cower, who did indeed look ridiculous

Again, this first night was expectedly all over the map. The parts that should be scrutinized a little closer 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 in time. Since Olbermann will be allowed to cover more ground than just a highlight show or just a random sports-topic show, 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? 


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