It’s unfair to lay these complaints solely at the feet of Olbermann. It’s not like he suggested that ABC hire the too-cool-for-the-room Dennis Miller to cohost Monday Night Football. And ESPN had much worse “personalities,” such as Chris Berman, who predated Olbermann. Olbermann simply played the game better than those around him, who couldn’t replicate “smart” and instead settled for “colorful”—which mostly translated into persistently loud or dumb.
But Olbermann also pissed off everyone around him along the way. For all of Olbermann’s verbal dexterity and showmanship, his legacy is as much about his on-air talent as it is his arrogance and his contentious departure from high-profile jobs. He abruptly exited ESPN in 1997, his former colleagues’ anger so strong that when the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All the Fun came out in 2011, they all reveled in . He jumped to MSNBC briefly to try his hand at a politics show and then landed at Fox Sports Network, where he was fired. (Rupert Murdoch’s infamous explanation for Olbermann’s termination: “He’s crazy.”) Olbermann returned to MSNBC and successfully made the switch to politics with Countdown—reinventing himself in the process—but in 2011 he brusquely departed for a second time. Again, the fallout was spectacular. A year later, he was booted from his gig at the low-rated Current, and it’s possible more people paid attention to the resulting bitching-in-the-media fireworks between Olbermann and his former bosses than actually watched his Current show.
Carrying all that baggage, the Olbermann who appears on Olbermann seems to be a man who knows what you’ve heard about him: that he’s brilliant but a total pain in the ass. In its first week, the show hasn’t tried to reboot that image as much as it has touched on all aspects of his persona: the references from nowhere (both Futurama and the Jack Nicholson remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice were mentioned the first few nights); the snide takedowns of the “Worst Person in the Sports World” segment; the cacophony of silly voices and accents while doing highlights; and the look-at-me self-obsession. (Just a minute into his first broadcast, while talking about New York Jets coach Rex Ryan’s recent heated press conference, Olbermann mentioned New Jersey governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama, throwing in a mock-perturbed aside that “48 seconds into a show I promised wouldn’t be about politics, I’m talking about the governor and the president,” a nod to his notorious liberal-firebrand Countdown days.)
The one clear-cut success of Olbermann’s first days has been his monologues. Mixing history, passion and current events, Olbermann deftly used the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to speak movingly about his deceased father’s memories of racism. And he’s already gotten plenty of mileage out of the NFL’s pitiful settlement agreement for concussion victims, remembering the life of running back Doug Kotar, whose death from a brain tumor was probably the result of his football career, and laying waste to a CBS Sports football writer who mocked players’ concerns about permanent brain injuries. This is what he did superbly on Countdown as well, summoning that eloquent, growing anger—permanently intertwined with his self-important stridency, alas—to cut through the noise.
These were Olbermann’s standout moments, but they seemed odd on the 21st century version of ESPN—or any other all-sports channel for that matter. Standing alone on YouTube, these monologues are beautiful, self-contained segments. But to watch an entire episode—where the segments are stuffed awkwardly between interviews with dopey ESPN personalities like Monday Night Football color analyst Jon Gruden—is to witness a show that’s often an ungainly amalgam of the program Olbermann wants to do and the one he needs to do to make his audience and bosses happy. (The play-nice nadir was watching Olbermann struggle through a mostly softball interview with Peyton Manning, who was there to hawk DirecTV.)
The show’s internal tension simply underlines the fact that Olbermann’s old routine on SportsCenter was merely the starting point for his ambitions: He had his eye on far loftier goals. As funny as he can be doing highlights on Olbermann, there’s a sense that, really, he should be doing something better than that by now. The irony is that just about nobody on any sports network could hope to achieve what he’s done already on Olbermann; they’d be lucky to make you laugh as much, and his monologues’ slow-boiling rage are too nuanced for people who think silence is a sign of weakness.
Watching Olbermann every night last week, I felt I had discovered a real-life version of The Newsroom, with Olbermann taking Will McAvoy’s “mission to civilize” seriously. Like the fictional McAvoy, Olbermann accepts it as a given that he’s the smartest, most interesting person around. And like McAvoy, he may be right—but he’s also deluded to think he can alter the fundamental realities of an industry. For as much as ESPN is trying to change its image by creating the erudite sports-and-culture website Grantland and hiring brilliant sports-and-politics statistician Nate Silver, its reputation remains that of a bunch of ex-jocks har-harring, backslapping and mouthing locker-room clichés, safe in the knowledge that they’ve got the monopoly on sports coverage.
Olbermann’s reappearance on the network is no doubt part of the brand’s attempt to reimagine itself, but the place isn’t the same as the one he left more than 15 years ago. It’s a lot worse. The media have described Olbermann’s return to ESPN as a comeback, a redemption story and the heartwarming conclusion of a prodigal-son return. I see it more as a strange fit. Olbermann has long prided himself on being the smartest guy in the room—I just don’t like the room he’s in.