What in the name of holy hell got into Ben Affleck?
Listening to the Boston-born movie star/screenwriter/director’s crazed and profane tirade concerning New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s spot of bother in “Deflategate,” investing a level of indignation in his spittle-punctuated rant more appropriate to mass genocide, one had to wonder if the Hollywood hero was working through a bout of ’roid rage.
Affleck’s fulminating harangue about what he called, in one of his milder moments, “the ultimate bullshit fucking outrage of sports ever”—namely Brady’s 4-game suspension by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for declining to turn over his cell phone in the NFL’s investigation of his use of slightly under-pressured footballs—was easily the most attention-grabbing and “fuck”-loaded five minutes of the debut of Any Given Wednesday, sports pundit Bill Simmons’s weekly series on HBO.
The half-hour program—a smorgasbord of fanboy worship of highly-compensated athletes, pop culture references, a soupcon of politics, and the host’s preppy-smart aleck sense of humor—represents Simmons’s triumphant return to the limelight after being fired 13 months ago by ESPN President John Skipper for refusing to toe the company line.
Simmons could hardly resist a dig at his former employer, showing a clip of blustering ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith, looking positively psycho and possibly ready to rumble as he warned viewers (or whoever he was speaking to): “You do not want to make an enemy of me!”
The 46-year-old Simmons is obviously a force of nature—the human equivalent of lightning in a bottle—who two decades ago was broke and starving in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, apparently unemployable by a respectable newspaper and headed for a rewarding career in bartending, when he talked his way into a sports-writing gig at AOL’s “Digital City Boston” vertical.
By 2001, his AOL column, “The Sports Guy,” was such a thoroughgoing hit that ESPN recruited him to write for the sports network’s web operation, and he eventually became a multimedia sensation—as the founding editor of ESPN’s Grantland webzine, the major domo of the sports documentary unit 30 for 30, a best-selling author, and a popular television personality to boot—and was widely considered the nation’s most influential sports commentator (while writing jokes and comedy sketches for his friend Jimmy Kimmel).
Simmons was arguably ESPN’s most recognizable star—making multiple millions of dollars—when his continual clashes with the corporate suits over issues of creative control predictably ended in tears. One of the final straws for management was when Simmons called Goodell a “liar” in 2014 for claiming ignorance as to the full extent of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s abuse of his then-fiancée, never mind that the NFL had a $15 billion broadcasting contract with ESPN.
Simmons and Affleck, by the way, agreed that Goodell is bad news. “It’s a smear campaign,” Simmons opined about the commissioner’s disciplining of Brady.
“It’s a fucking ridiculous smear campaign,” Affleck concurred, “and Goddell doesn’t have the integrity, I wanna say, frankly—”
“You can absolutely say that on HBO,” Simmons chimed in, “even though my old employer wouldn’t have agreed.”
Simmons clearly won the PR battle that attended his unceremonious sacking; he was a white-hot media commodity, and HBO was ranked a hands-down winner when it successfully bid for his services.
So how was his television debut?
Other than Affleck’s insane implosion over Goddell’s alleged mistreatment of Boston’s favorite quarterback—who is “so fucking classy and such a fucking gentleman,” according to the Academy Award-winning Patriots acolyte—Simmons’s first show was workmanlike if not entirely bracing.
The first chat segment, a towel-snapping back-and-forth with Charles Barkley of the sort that the tart-tongued basketball legend regularly enjoys on TNT’s Inside the NBA, was less than memorable, except that distracting globules of perspiration kept forming on Sir Charles’s upper lip and forehead, prompting me to suggest that Simmons’s production team would do well in the future to lower temperature on Any Given Wednesday’s exposed-brick, brown-leather-upholstered man-cave of a set.
Simmons, wearing jeans, sneakers, and an open patterned shirt over a gray tee opposite Sir Charles’s summer suit, didn’t seem to be sweating—although he looked a tad shiny.
At this point, it’s probably fair to offer a perhaps significant caveat emptor: having suffered through a misspent childhood of being picked last if at all for grade-school games, and a father who watched only tennis on TV, I am not emotionally attached to team sports of any kind.
I viewed this week’s nutty pandemonium in Cleveland over the Cavaliers’ and Lebron James’s championship win over the Golden State Warriors (and Simmons’s opening essay, a less than gimlet-eyed tribute to King James, focusing on his post-game sobs of happiness) with the same level of detached fascination that I give to the massive Victory Day parades in Pyongyang.
Which is to say, I could barely follow Simmons’s and Barkley’s insider chitchat about pro basketball and its various larger-than-life celebrities, so I am not necessarily the ideal audience, or for that matter the target demographic, for much of this show.
Still, there were elements I enjoyed and would like to see more of as the program evolves: Simmons’s catalogue of lame television commercials starring pro athletes and his sendup of a Stephen Curry commercial, for instance—and anything else he feels like doing to lure eyeballs beyond his core viewership of sports fans, such as the clip of then-Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett gazing heavenward and shouting “Anything is possible!” after his team won the 2008 NBA title.
“And now,” mused the host, “little Billy Simmons has a TV show.”