The United Statements of Keith Olbermann, otherwise labeled simply “Olbermann” on your ESPN2 run sheet, has predictably become quite a complicated piece of television to consume on a nightly basis in just its first week.
Even setting the DVR and realizing this would involve more than one take at a time in an attempt to chew upon and digest, it can easily induce an Alka Seltzer moment.
This completely ego-driven return of the former ESPN anchor aiming to rewrite how history has looked upon him has managed to kick it into verbiage overdrive pronto.
From New York’s Times Square, Olbermann has produced a greater luminous effect than all the glittering signage in the background that seemed to be there if only to challenge him for visual attention.
The content isn’t really anything unexpected. It’s pure, unadulterated, look-at-me K.O. OK, we get it.
The comparisons to his previous stint as a smuggest political commentator on MSNBC’s “Countdown” were anticipated. You’d love it more if this somehow spurred the creation of a sports-related Steven Colbert-type character on a daily Onion video, one where the guy’s head would literally explode at the end of each segment.
And reading between the lines in everything Olbermann does, even if there are some less-than-subtle jabs at his own company’s policies, is mandatory if anyone plans to stick with it past the some volatile opening monologue and get to the compelling interviews, retro sports highlight commentary and even a re-washing of his “worst people” segments as they relate to the sports world.
“I’m here to calm you down,” joked Wednesday night guest John McEnroe, introduced shortly after Olbermann’s railing against the NCAA’s decision to suspend Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for the first half of Saturday’s opener, a follow-up lambasting from the night before where he created a well-told but refreshingly new spin on how the game Manziel plays is really “college pro football.”
“You don’t need to be that angry,” McEnroe continued. “You seemed fairly mellow early on, and now you’re coming on strong.”
McEnroe couldn’t be serious. But in a way, he was.
Admitted Olbermann: “I have a lot of pent-up anxiety.”
That became fairly, and painfully, obvious on Night 1, where Olbermann practically broke loose from his handlers and tore down the starters gate with in a 10-minute-plus rant involving media coverage of the New York Jets. He managed to verbally tar-and-feather one particular beat writer (whose name we’ll refrain from using to avoid piling on) and basically hold him up as example of how so much sports journalism these days is just made up.
How perfect it would have been if he then went into a Tim Tebow conversation. But he didn’t have to. Message received.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of Olbermann’s return is how it has shook some critics to the core in trying to interpret how he fits into today’s grand scheme of sports TV grandstanding. But it’s also interestingly raised their game in turning phrases in cyberspace and on newsprint – a byproduct of Olbermann’s constant challenge that they can be better with their banter than just using stale references.
(An aside: It was an early version of Olbermann, perhaps back when he was at either KTLA-Channel 5 or KCBS-Channel 2 more than 20 years ago, who I often consulted with on various media-related stories, locally and nationally. He easily stood out as the smartest, deepest thinker on the local landscape and it was a pleasure to bring attention to stories he reported on versus what else was just laying there for the picking.
(One of Olbermann’s pieces of advice had to with critiquing, particularly with book reviews: Find out the author’s intent, then figure out of he accomplished it. Don’t be so quick to insert your own “I would have done it this way” angle to the piece.)
Olbermann may be an evolving TV character in this latest go-around with ESPN, and even he could pull out an old Max Headroom reference at this point and smile about it — but all that is pent up could soon dissipate and his delivery won’t overwhelm the message.
His opening night discussion that later involved columnist Jason Whitlock about the “death” of reporting had plenty of merit, even if it took it a notch or two higher by proclaiming: “Long live making something out of nothing — if you can instigate controversy, if you can sell a few more newspapers to a world that no longer wants them, all your sins will be forgiven.”
But until Olbermann settles into a smartish groove, perhaps listens to a producer or two who tries to pull his seat belt a little tighter, he’ll have to endure some of the quick-think critiques that have already been there to mark the latest welcome to the end of his career.
Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times: “Mr. Olbermann ranted with characteristic sarcasm and brio about all kinds of things, but the subjects he chose seemed also to serve as allegories for his own experiences as a cable star turned celebrity flameout. . . . Sports is probably a better fit for his style of needling humor and high-flying hyperbole. As a political commentator, Mr. Olbermann was clever and sardonic, but also intensely self-righteous, and his combativeness spilled over into public spats with network executives and producers.
“Detractors may wince at so much self-absorption, but it is actually a large part of Mr. Olbermann’s appeal.”
Mary McNamara from the L.A. Times: “Of course he has a point; Olbermann always has a point, which he makes by swinging admirably through garlands of verbiage like Tarzan through the jungle vines. He’s just having too much fun to realize that the jungle is a sound stage and the vines have been placed to ensure maximum swingage.”
Those two wrote that after just his opening night performance. It’s all they had to go on at that point.
The point is, stick around. The fun, and possible derailment, is just beginning. A suspension is going to happen for something or another. That’s part of the modus Olberandi.
The latest controversy with ESPN and PBS over the “Frontline” series on NFL concussions has to be in his graying crosshairs, but you want to find out how he’ll tackle it without concussing his career again.
Moving forward, continue to watch. And learn. Like, getting to the end of Wednesday’s show where Olbermann had his personal spin on why Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech had meaning in his life, based on his father’s observations and regrets.
DVR so maybe you can go back and cringe and roll your eyes.
But mostly learn as you wade through this 30-minutes-or-less delivery versus the intended message, versus Olbermann versus the rest of society who seems to be (at least from his pulpit) too stupid to figure things out things on their own.
We may only need a flashlight for our illumination, but Olbermann will always come through with the proverbial megawatt Bat Signal.