THIS MONTH, Bill Simmons—a year removed from his unceremonious sacking by ESPN and the subsequent shutdown of Grantland, the satellite site he’d created at The Worldwide Leader—launched two eagerly-awaited new projects: The Ringer, a sports/pop culture/tech website, and Any Given Wednesday, a talk show on HBO.
When I say “eagerly-awaited,” I mean eagerly awaited by me, specifically. As I’ve written previously on these pages, I’ve read almost every word Simmons has published since I discovered him in 2001 or 2002. “By my (probably inept) calculations, he’s cranked out, and I’ve consumed, 1.5 million words in the last 11 years,” I wrote. “That’s six Ulysseses.” When the suits at ESPN showed him the door, and then kicked the other Grantland writers to the curb soon after, I felt like a Muscovite monarchist after the Romanovs were gunned down. Or, to use a more Simmonsy example, like a Ke$ha fan during the interminable sexual harassment lawsuit that has rendered her silent. Grantland was one of the handful of sites I read every day, one of few web outlets that welcomed long-form writing. After its assassination, as if to further say “eff you,” ESPN.com morphed into a portal for shitty videos and two-paragraph reports that doesn’t format properly on a PC. I mourned the former’s loss, and I stopped going to the latter, and I wondered where Simmons was and what he would do next.
The answer: podcasts. The Bill Simmons Podcast, which I initially resisted and then came around to, had the feel of something subversive, underground. Simmons began his career in the late 90s as the ultimate outsider, a renegade super-fan writing about sports in a way no one else had before. Simmons transcended the very idiom of the sports column. Playing on the advantages of writing online—no word limit, no subject too obscure to cover—he reinvented how we think about sports, and how sports and pop culture intersect. What Tarantino did to films in the 90s, Simmons did to internet sports columns in the 00s.
In recent years, however, his celebrity (at least within sports circles) has allowed him to hobnob with Shaq and Magic, Bill Hader and Al Michaels, and his columns lost some of their edge. The podcast had the gritty feel of the early days, before he was famous and successful and, oh yes, rich[1. He revealed during an interview with Howard Stern that he made a staggering $5 million per annum at ESPN]—if you could ignore the fact that his guests included Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, Charles Barkley, and a Chicago Bulls enthusiast named Barack Obama. How much did I like the Bill Simmons Podcast? I even bought stuff from the show’s sponsors. (And yes, MeUndies really are as soft and comfortable as advertised).
When I heard about the Bill Simmons HBO show six months ago, I immediately ordered HBO. When news came of the new website, which did not yet have a name, I was dizzy with excitement. At last, a new destination to replace Grantland! Because more than anything, I missed reading Simmons’s columns. I wanted them back, as the aforementioned Muscovite longs for his elegantly-mustachioed tsar.
The Ringer began life via MailChimp. I’d get emails with short, sweet pieces in them—appetizers for what was going to be a sumptuous main course. Or so I assumed. A week or so before the launch, Simmons talked up the site on the podcast…and I had my first pangs of concern. He spoke of the new site being more “reactionary;” he meant reactionary as in reacting quickly to news of the moment, not as in Marine Le Pen, but the uh-oh effect on me was the same. He crowed about all these great writers they’d hired, and how the staff was “younger.” (Simmons is 46, three years my senior; not a Millennial, and not someone whose pop culture references Millennials would even understand; he was, and has always been, a Gen Xer writing for Gen Xers). He raved about Medium, which built the new site, and how The Ringer, unlike Grantland, was designed to be read on mobile devices (I hate reading on my phone). And lo, when the site launched, it was exactly what he said it would be: reactive pieces, written by kids, designed to be consumed (as opposed to “read”) on a Samsung Galaxy. All of this would have been fine, except for the fact that the short appetizer-like paragraphs that had been sent to my inbox were not appetizers at all, but actual pieces. For months, I’d been looking forward to a Sports Guy steak dinner, and Simmons went and opened a low-end tapas bar—Buzzfeed for sports and pop culture.
But then, Buzzfeed is enormously profitable. Its click-bait model of short pieces with snazzy titles is engineered to generate clicks, which generate more revenue than, say, long-form pieces without click-bait titles—in other words, pieces like those he published at Grantland.[2. His first column for The Ringer was about Kevin Durant’s free agency; a fine column, but short; in the past, he’d have written that column and then added 2,000 more words breaking down where Durant might go and why.] Interesting that when he was spending someone else’s money, Simmons nobly disdained such commercial concerns, but the minute he launched his own site, with his own investment capital, it’s all about clicks and traffic and Millennials, the vaunted males-aged-18-35 demographic. Has there ever been a more egregious example of selling out? Fie, Billy.
I am not alone in this assessment. Shortly after The Ringer launched, Malcolm Gladwell was a guest on the Bill Simmons Podcast. “No one loves The Ringer more than I do,” Gladwell said diplomatically, during a promo for the new site; he did not lavish praise upon it, note. “More long pieces—that’s what I’d like to see.”
Wouldn’t we all.
My hope then was that the disappointing mediocrity of The Ringer could be explained by the fact that Simmons had invested more of his creative energy in his HBO show, which premiered last week. Alas, the maiden episode offers little evidence of this. The premiere of Any Given Wednesday is almost comically awful. My nine-year-old daughter’s YouTube channel looks more professional than the opening title sequence—this from a network that has generated some of the best opening title sequences in TV history! The set is cluttered and ugly, and the show’s concept—hinted at on the podcast, but never clearly elucidated—remains murky. Is this really the template, or will the concept evolve as the season goes along?
One thing is clear after the first five minutes: Simmons does not have the chops to carry a show. It’s like building an NBA team around Harrison Barnes. Television is not his métier. He’s competing with the likes of John Oliver and Bill Maher, and he just doesn’t cut it; it’s like watching Susan Alexander Kane open the Chicago Opera House. His eyes do not look directly at the camera, perhaps because he’s reading from a teleprompter behind it (dude, memorize your fucking lines!), and the effect is disturbing; are agents of ISIS offstage, forcing him to do this at gunpoint? His face is caked with makeup, which makes him look like a Madame Tussaud wax figure of Bill Simmons. His wardrobe, if we can call it that, consists mostly of a tight gray T-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt—a look popular with the slacker set in 1993, but one not often seen on TV shows because it makes the wearer look like a slob. And his soft, laid-back voice, which I’ve gotten used to on the podcast, simply isn’t strong enough to land the jokes. Ah, yes: the jokes. What is LMAO funny in an internet column and smilingly amusing on a podcast feels forced and precious on a flatscreen. The jokes are flat. (How flat are they? They’re so flat, the NFL suspended Tom Brady for deflating them!) The interview portion of the show, with Charles Barkley and Ben Affleck this time, is stronger. But the edits are jarring and obvious, and the main water-cooler talking point after the first episode is that Affleck, in his slurry, swear-peppered denouncement of Deflategate, may have had one too many vodka tonics. [3.To me, Affleck sounded less drunk and more like his thyroid levels were off; up the synthroid, Ben.] That voyeuristic takeaway might be good for short-term ratings, but is goading-a-movie-star-into-R-rated-rant really something to build a show upon?
To be fair, both The Ringer and Any Given Wednesday are new. There’s still time for the planter’s warts to be lasered off, and for Simmons to regain his footing. But as he’s often noted about NBA big men, they have it until they suddenly don’t, and it’s fair to wonder if Bill Simmons has reached the point in his career where he’s Patrick Ewing in a Seattle Supersonics jersey (or, to continue our Romanov analogy, Nicholas II riddled with Bolshevik bullet holes). He seems to have forgotten what it is that people love about him; perhaps all those years in L.A. have gone to his head. If an inveterate Simmons fan like me thinks the TV show sucks, it’s hard to imagine droves of people digging it. As for The Ringer, another name might have been more suitable: it should be called The Squander.
All of which is beyond disappointing. It’s like Mookie Wilson hit not one but two ground balls to first base, and Bill Buckner botched them both. It verges on blasphemy to suggest this, but…maybe ESPN was right to let him go.