Friday, September 19, 2008

"Football Night in America" Is Perfect for Football Night in America

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Every Sunday is a sea of football broadcasts. You can count on a minimum of three games between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Eastern) on CBS and Fox, all leading to the glamor slot of the weekend: NBC's "Sunday Night Football" game. So it's not surprising that NBC pulls out all the stops with its pre-game show, "Football Night in America" (Sundays at 7 p.m. Eastern). And while the program is top-quality all around, the one thing that allows this clip and feature hour to stand out from similar offerings on CBS, Fox and ESPN is the reteaming of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. (I also love how the name "Football Night in America" is a riff on "Hockey Night in Canada," but with all due respect to my Canadian friends, I prefer Olbermann and Patrick to the loose cannon Don Cherry.)

Olbermann and Patrick essentially invented the modern personality-driven approach to reading highlights, which is now standard at ESPN, when they teamed on "SportsCenter" in the mid-1990s. The guys always made for a kind of great yin-yang, opposites-attract pairing, with the deadpan, dry-humored Patrick acting as the perfect counterbalance to the also dry but more rambunctious Olbermann. And when Aaron Sorkin's great "Sports Night" hit the air in 1998, there is no doubt that his sportscasting team of Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause) owed a heavy debt to Olbermann and Patrick, right down to the styles, cadences and rhythms of the broadcast.

But what the two broadcasters shared was an intelligent but irreverent approach to doing the highlights, as interested in entertaining and commenting on the spectacle of an event (good or bad) as the plays in the event itself. And Olbermann and Patrick bring that same team dynamic to their work on "Football Night in America."

The program occupies a unique spot in the football calendar, airing before the big Sunday night contest, but also just as the rest of the Sunday schedule is winding down. So the program operates as both a pre- and post-action show, bringing you up to date with what has happened, and getting you ready for the game about to start.

Olbermann and Patrick concentrate on the post-game aspect of the program, taking care of most of the highlights of the day's contests. And if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine that you were watching "SportsCenter" circa 1995. When the guys launch into the action, hold on tight, because it's off to the races.

For example, last Sunday, Olbermann and Patrick started with the Raiders-Chiefs game, and Olbermann ran off three one-liners (without a word in between) before making a single comment on the game action. He dove in with: "It's the readily resistible force against the easily moved object" (since both the Raiders and Chiefs are less than good this year), moving right into: "All human history divides evenly into those times (Raiders owner) Al Davis is about to fire a young coach and those times he is about to hire a young coach," adding: "Lane Kiffin is on the hot seat, but the hot seat is in Kansas City, so it's not that hot." By now, we've already seen the Chiefs quarterback throw in interception in a highlight, but Olbermann hasn't referenced a single thing on the field. But unless you root for the Chiefs or Raiders, who cares about this game? Olbermann and Patrick make it interesting for the bulk of fans with no stake in the outcome, but, somehow, manage still to show respect for the game and the players.

But it's not like Olbermann and Patrick don't understand the game. Quite the contrary. What makes their humor and sarcasm work is that it is rooted in deep knowledge. The Raiders-Chiefs jokes assume you know Davis's history with coaches. In a later highlight, Olbermann described an awkward, left-handed desperation toss by Eli Manning that turned a sure sack into a decent gain by saying: "He looked like Jared Lorenzen, only it was complete." The humor only works if you know that the portly, less-than-graceful (and less-than-successful) Lorenzen was the Giants' backup QB last year.

Patrick, too, isn't going to jump up and down to make sure you understand that he's kidding around. When a Titans running back scored a touchdown on a one-yard run in a highlight, Patrick deadpanned, "Nobody can celebrate a one-yard touchdown run quite like Lendale White can."

The rest of the show is top-notch. Bob Costas is a master at overseeing proceedings, and he is in his element here, orchestrating the movement of the show from dramatic packaged pieces (like Sunday's profile of the late Syracuse star Ernie Davis), to the Olbermann-Patrick highlight segments, to football discussions with panelists like the goofily entertaining and insightful Cris Collinsworth, the smooth and confident Tiki Barber, and the exuberant and sometimes coherent Jerome Bettis.

But, ultimately, while Costas, Collinsworth and Barber (along with contributor Peter King) lift "Football Night in America" above its competitors at the other networks, it is Olbermann and Patrick that provide the special element, the one thing that makes the show a can't-miss for football fans.

As much as I enjoy Olbermann and Patrick doing the highlights, there is one element that feels a bit odd. When the guys were on ESPN in the 90s, they were just two sports anchors, Keith and Dan. There was no baggage attached. But now, sitting in the NBC studio and riffing on games, there is something oddly regressive about it. Like watching the Rolling Stones play "Satisfaction" in a hockey arena. Patrick has gone on to be a successful broadcaster, hosting a daily radio show and writing columns. And Olbermann's career has ventured away from sports, as he is now the host of the politics show "Countdown" on MSNBC. So as you watch the highlights, the guys' commentary is undoubtedly entertaining, but it just feels off somehow. They're off-NBC lives intrude on the football broadcast. Especially for Olbermann, as it is hard to separate Olbermann the sports guy from Olbermann the fiery liberal commentator.

For example, in Sunday's show, Olbermann, in a highlight, mentioned a hurricane charity, which required him to also mention Hurricane Katrina. I was bracing for an Olbermann screed against Bush's handling of Katrina, most likely with a reference to "Brownie" and the great job he was doing. It never came. Olbermann just went on with the highlight. I'm not sure if I was disappointed or relieved that he didn't go off on a rant. I was relieved, because I was positive that if he did pontificate, it could all get ugly. As much as I agree with Olbermann politically, there is a time and a place for everything, and I think liberals and conservatives can agree that "Football Night in America" should be a politics-free zone. But at the same time, I was disappointed, since we all know from Olbermann's MSNBC show how passionate he is about the Katrina issue, so when he didn't say a word about the failures and just went on with the NFL business, he came off as defanged a bit. It's not really fair to say that, since Olbermann was just doing his job for that night. But I'm sure I'm not the only one that nevertheless thought it felt a bit off.

Which is, really, a compliment to Olbermann. I don't want to say too much about "Countdown" in this piece, but suffice to say that I think his work on the show is stellar. Critics call him a liberal loudmouth answer to the Bill O'Reillys, Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world, but I think that is a simplistic comparison. Olbermann's interviews and commentaries are always meticulously researched. You can criticize his ideology (that is, if you're conservative, you can not like what the guy is saying), but you can't criticize his methodology. He alsways has facts well-researched. Where O'Reilly will post his own words in a graphic next to his head while going on a rant, Olbermann regularly shows graphics of quotes and other materials to provide factual backing for his arguments. Olbermann may be as partisan as the right-wing blowhards, but he is infinitely more prepared and thorough in his reporting.

But that one issue aside, I am ecstatic to see Olbermann and Patrick back on the air together, lobbing smart, funny grenades while catching viewers up on the day's NFL action. When on Sunday Patrick said over a shot of some loopy fans, "The new Olympic sport, synchronized cheering," I smiled. Count me in as a fan of Olbermann and Patrick, and of "Football Night in America."