Much about Keith Olbermann's new show, which aired its first episode last night, was slightly surreal. Olbermann back in the ESPN mothership more than 15 years after the prickly anchor left the network seemingly for good, now broadcasting very clearly from the famous studio that formerly hosted "Nightline," talking sports and doing highlights. (Watching Olbermann doing new baseball highlights, in 2013, is a nostalgic treat as enjoyable as watching Beavis & Butt-head watch a Skrillex video -- which, hey, maybe we do truly live in a golden age.) But the vertigo doesn't last, because Olbermann is so ridiculously good at hosting a television show that it quickly seems strange that he's been off the air for any time at all.
The show was basically just "Countdown," except only about sports. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, you will enjoy "Olbermann." And maybe you hate Olbermann's politics, maybe you agree with his politics but think he's too pompous, maybe you think his ego's too large, but no one can honestly say that the guy is a bad broadcaster. Hating Olbermann is a (tiny) bit like hating LeBron James. Sure, yes, I get it, but if you like basketball, you should probably try to appreciate watching the man who is currently the best in the world at playing basketball do his thing. (Lest you think my own politics are influencing my judgment here, I also have said, for years, that Rush Limbaugh -- a mean, gross man with repellent beliefs -- is a brilliant broadcaster.) Thanks partly to the very depressing state of the rest of sports media, "Olbermann" became the smartest, least aggravating personality-based show on any ESPN channel the second it aired. (He also immediately brought up politics, but in a way that even the National Review couldn't complain about.)
It's not all perfect, obviously. There are a few worrying signs. If Olbermann is forced to book only ESPN-approved guests, including the sorry ESPN "talent" roster, we'll suffer through some awkward interviews. The utterly useless Tony Kornheiser is scheduled to appear at some point this week.
Olbermann's first guest was Jason Whitlock -- a man who just recently left ESPN acrimoniously, and then unexpectedly returned -- and they had a fun meta-discussion about sports media's addiction to inventing and then "reporting" on made-up stories. Neither mentioned that ESPN engages in this practice just as often as, and at a much greater volume than, New York City tabloids and sports talk radio. They perhaps didn't need to. But Olbermann will have to find some way to criticize his new/old home, hopefully in a manner that doesn't once again lead to more than a decade of vicious backbiting.
ESPN needs an on-air antidote to its own bullshit, and Olbermann is the guy in the best position to provide it. He is something of a small-c conservative when it comes to sports, or at least a traditionalist, but he's not an anti-intellectual. He's not scared of advanced statistics -- I assume we'll be seeing ESPN hire Nate Silver on "Olbermann" soon -- and he doesn't think in sports radio clichés about "grit" and "hustle." Most important, in a field that thrives on ginned-up outrage, Olbermann generally picks the right targets.
"The Worst Person in the World" segment never seemed out of place on a cable news politics show, but on a sports show it was actually refreshing. Not because there's an absence of over-the-top recrimination and criticism in sports media, but because Olbermann's No. 1 target was an owner, not a player. And Olbermann went after Houston Astros owner Jim Crane for greed. ESPN, as an institution, often acts like it considers itself part of the management class, aligned with the leagues, the commissioners and, more often than not, the owners. You're much, much more likely to hear some screeching head on an ESPN shouting show complain about a greedy player than a greedy owner. ESPN is all about "protecting the brand," and it considers the ESPN brand to be in a sort of brand brotherhood with the brands of the leagues it covers. Olbermann, thankfully, does not buy into that bullshit.
So, more of this, please. Someone on ESPN (or, sure, ESPN 2) should be going after the Seligs and Goodells and Snyders and Dolans as hard as they go after "juicing players" and "showboating receivers." And someone on ESPN should call out ESPN when it insults the intelligence of its audience. For however long this reunion lasts, hopefully that someone will be Keith Olbermann.