Dan Le Betard is Highly Questionable, a great show on an increasingly bad network.

ESPN

Sports television has become a joyless parade of blowhards, phonies and piss-poor provocateurs. ESPN, the Grand Marshall, has become the sports equivalent of Fox News, a popular destination for easy opinions where a regular viewer can somehow know less about the topic at hand than before they tuned in. Superstars are created, dissected, destroyed and mocked. Highlights are quick, context-less and backed by horrible music. While most programming for many cable networks has been considerably smarter in the last 10 years, ESPN has grown more ignorant in its old age.

At its worst, the network is a shit sandwich made from the essence of bad sports talk radio and the growing influence of public relations on sports. Every morning, you can watch Skip Bayless and some other dolt dissect the most recent cliché uttered by a sports superstar (God save the poor athlete in 2012 who has the gall to actually say something interesting). It’s a draining experience that has little to do with sports and even less to do with the fun parts of sports. Talking heads treat athletes like they’re not human beings, while athletes are trained to shield all humanity from the public. It all ends with a well-packaged music video featuring sports cyborgs performing amazing feats mixed with the sound of interchangeable newspaper numbskulls and former athletes sucking all of the life out of sports.

Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable is the welcomed exception to the soul-crushing ESPN rule. The show featuring the Miami Herald columnist and his father has easily become the most interesting show on the network. The show manages to be light, unpredictable and substantive. It’s cleverly packaged to look remarkably similar to the slightly tired Pardon the Interruption, godawful Sportsnation and dead-on-arrival Around the Horn, but that’s where the similarities stop. While other shows thrive on fake controversy, reactionary “debate” and up-to-the-minute inanity, DLHQ often takes the long view. Opinions are thoughtful, sports are treated like games, athletes are treated like human beings and pomposity is delivered with a laugh.

While the show bears the name of the younger Le Batard, the star of the show is Gonzalo (“Papi”), a 68-year-old Cuban immigrant who is thankfully unfamiliar with the slick, boring rhythms and clichés of sports television. There is no one on sports television like Gonzalo. In fact, there is no one on television like Gonzalo. He is shamelessly old and unmistakably Cuban. On a network that has seemed to grudgingly embrace the growing Hispanic population in America with a few isolated soccer goals accompanied by hapless play-by-play from an anchor who mispronounces the names, Gonzalo is a wonderful addition. English is clearly his second language. He bungles names of sports stars and sometimes teams (the Memphis Grizzlies are the “Grizzles”), but adds a wonderful flair and sometimes, wonderfully unnecessary rolling Rs to the names of Hispanic athletes.

Gonzalo’s sports opinions are often those of a fan–he loves the Miami Heat and hates the Chicago Bulls. He mocks the horrible Miami Dolphins and seems to love almost every quarterback in the NFL except Aaron Rodgers. He obviously doesn’t follow sports with the kind of joyless constancy of many on the network. Because of his casual sports knowledge, Gonzalo talks about it with an infectious excitement and lightness that’s impossible to find anywhere else on ESPN. Tune into Around the Horn and you’re likely to see dozens of passionate, “provocative” arguments for points from people who couldn’t give a shit, but Gonzalo’s occasional sports rants feel natural. His chemistry with Dan is delightful to watch and unlike so much sports talk radio and ESPN, the laughter never feels forced. His age, broken English, passion for food and family stories are regularly fodder for laughs. Occasionally, the show will stop in its tracks for Dan to call his mother to confirm an embarrassing anecdote about his father.

DLHQ, which is filmed in the Cuban and Cuban-American heavy city of Hialeah, Fla. near Miami, is also the only show on ESPN with a sense of place. Because the network is headquartered in nondescript Bristol, Conn., programs on the network regularly reflect the generic studio environment of its signature program, Sportscenter. DLHQ is a Miami show. Miami sports stories are given prominence and Miami sports stars occasionally wander through the show’s silly, fake kitchen studio. When New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham became one of the best at his position last year, Dan and Gonzalo recalled how terrible the breakout football star was on the Miami Hurricanes basketball team. The benefits of having a show SOMEWHERE was highlighted earlier this year following controversial comments from Ozzie Guillen, firebrand manager of the Miami Marlins who said he “loved” Fidel Castro. It was discussed endlessly on the network by dozens of dullards with little or no political or local awareness, but Gonzalo’s heartfelt story about leaving Cuba for America was a rare bit of insightful and moving context.

The show truly shines in its daily interview segment. Interviews on DLHQ are markedly different from other ESPN interviews, which almost exclusively focus on history no older than 24 hours and rarely treat athletes like human beings. Dan seldom, if ever, asks athletes about the recent or upcoming game. He asks about their childhood, their fears, their families and their beliefs. As the intersection between sports and naked capitalism continues to separate athletes from fans, DLHQ is one of the few places where athletes are presented with a level of humanity.  The best example is the show’s interview with former Penn State/NBA journeyman John Amaechi. Amaechi, who should have his own show on the network, tells Dan about the difficulties of being a gay man in sports.  Amaechi talks about the scorn he faced after coming out publicly. It is a genuinely emotional moment for Dan, who seems to be holding back tears. Seeing a gay man talk about his struggles while a straight sports columnist listens with real empathy is almost shocking to see on a sports network. It’s undoubtedly important.

Another great example of the strength of DLHQ interviews is this discussion with Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who I had no idea was such an interesting person.

That’s not to say the show focuses exclusively on Roy Firestone-esque sentimentality. It also gives athletes the chance to be funny and flawed in public without judgment. It’s a highlight in a show that thrives on the delightful parts of sports and draws attention to issues bigger than the game. That perspective is something severely lacking on ESPN’s programming (save the channel’s wonderful 30 For 30 and ESPN Films productions). ESPN needs it. In the dispiriting sports environment of 2012, we sports fans need it.