Keith Olbermann once said "The corporation is one of the great unheralded human inventions of destruction. It is a way to absolve from any personal liability a bunch of people. They form together in a massive ID and they do whatever they want." It seems almost prophetic, given that most assume ESPN has brought Olbermann back as proof of the corporation's ability to show their increasingly crowded list of competitors "we can do whatever we want!"
Olbermann premiered last night on ESPN2, and Keith spent the show's first 13 minutes showing you why everyone on the planet will swear to his talent. A jarring fade-in and Olbermann leading off the show with "As I was saying..." rather than an ease in and an explanation of the show's premise. A long, tightly edited, fitfully funny, and classically giddy monologue about the New York media's coverage of the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez controversy. Just that quickly, it was as if he'd never left. It was more Lemieux's return in 2000 rather than Jordan with the Washington Wizards.
A lot of people have wondered whether or not it's right for Keith to carve up the media without going after ESPN. Probably not, but for television purposes, it's most likely better that he doesn't. While there are certainly a number of ESPN-affiliated media members worthy of scorn from time to time, this show will become unwatchable and uncomfortable if it just becomes Keith vs. [ESPN person]. For better or worse, the monologue portion of the show is Keith vs. The Media, with ESPN sitting in the corner as a conscientious objector.
The show featured two interviews. His first interview with Jason Whitlock felt a bit too much like a televised high five, but the end of their discussion on black athletes' connection to their community suggested that if Keith and Whitlock had a more regular segment, they could challenge each other a little bit and make some good television. The second guest was Mark Cuban, whom I've seen on sports talk shows twice in five days (he appeared on Fox Sports Live Thursday) and I've yet to be given any discernible reason why, with Shark Tank a month away and the NBA season two months away.
Aside from sports, however, Olbermann's favorite subject appears to be ... well, Olbermann. The highlights segments are seriously called "Keithlights" and feature, essentially, the highlights of whatever games Keith feels like he wants to run his favorite old SportsCenter catchphrases (which were admittedly fun to hear) through. This Day in Keith History will grow old in about a month, as Keith's mustache and leather jacket are really the only "get a load of this!" looks in his past.
His Worst Person in the World segment remains, though it's a bit more fun knowing it probably won't be someone he's been engaged in ideological debate with, and just people making dumb sports decisions. Time Marches On is basically Oddball from Countdown, and it'll be hit or miss. He mocked a bizarre Japanese horse racing video game that's been making the rounds among other things.
The show clearly aspires to be a sports edition of Keith's old show, Countdown, and that means it'll essentially have two versions. On slow news days, it may be a struggle to watch, because Olbermann will have to dig for something to find an ax to grind with. However, that monologue (whether you agreed with it or not), clearly displayed that Keith's still got the gift of hot sports take. He will be an essential opinion on days when huge sports stories break. We just have to hope it won't involve Tebow.
Of course, that's the show's most frustrating contradiction. Obviously, the show becomes too much all-Keith, all-the-time, but who would we rather be seeing on screen? Olbermann's almost always the smartest guy in the room, the most well researched, and often, the funniest. You can hardly blame him for cobbling together an ego trip every now and then.
In its worst instincts, Olbermann can feel like the Oceans movies of sports TV shows; though instead of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and George Clooney, it's Keith and Keith and Keith and Keith who've gotten together in Times Square to hang out and plan one more heist. This show's content will come from (save for the guests, who are typically friends of Keith) one man. That can get tiring after a while. I imagine there will be days and entire weeks when I check out the show, and there will be times when I avoid it entirely.
However, there's no way Keith Olbermann being back on television isn't good for television viewers. Olbermann's a brilliant writer and broadcaster, with an attitude that we don't currently have in sports TV. You can love him, you can hate him, you can do whatever, chances are if you tune into the show, you won't be able to change the channel. Keith has that rare gift of being able to use television not only to get across the message, but to make you either jump on his side or have you red in the face. Welcome back.