(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Zack Handlen watches the year's most-watched broadcast, the Super Bowl. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff watches a whole week of Glenn Beck.)

There's Christmas… and then there's the Super Bowl. It's hard to think of another cultural event that garners this much attention; the 'Bowl doesn't have the same religious connotations, and nobody gets any time off from work to celebrate it, but there's that same sense of a society all focusing its attention on a single concept. You can be a big football fan, you can go to parties for the game, you can write long screeds delineating why your team is superior to all others; or you can spend the lead up and the day of bitching about how you don't care about sports, explaining to everyone that you only watch for the ads, and writing long blog posts delineating how you don't understand the importance of a bunch of musclebound sneaker ads jumping on each other and dancing. But you have to know it's there. I'm sure folks exist who had no reaction whatsoever to Super Bowl XLV and more power to them. As pop culture goes, though, tonight's four hour game was the hot-spot, for sincerity and sarcasm alike. It's nice to have most everybody talking about the same thing at once, and especially nice that, after tonight, we can all come together as a nation and agree: That half-time show sucked.

Apologies in advance to the football fans reading this, and I mean that sincerely. I'm not a big sports guy, and I mostly got roped into doing this because nobody else wanted to, and I made the mistake of being in my apartment when the A.V. Club signal went up. (For the curious, it's a pair of hipster glasses and an ironic thumbs up.) I enjoyed the game itself, but I'm not big on the nuances of strategy here. I'd heard of Ben Roethlisberger, but that was because of the rape accusations, which didn't get mentioned much tonight. Terry Bradshaw alluded to them vaguely in the pre-game interview, and somebody referred to "sexual assault," which kind of makes rape sound like it's a form of mugging. I felt bad for the rest of his teammates, because the Steelers didn't seem to have a lot of good press going into tonight. The odds were heavily in the Green Bay Packers favor, and for whatever reason, most everyone I know, in real life or on Twitter, was pulling for Green Bay. So the Steelers were the villains of the night, and there are probably a lot of complicated reasons for that, which I expect some of you will be clever enough to elucidate in the comments section. When Roethlisberger managed to throw two interceptions in the space of, what?, 10 minutes, it felt like some kind of divine justice was being handed down. Even though it's still just a game, even though I'm sure most of the guys on the Steelers are just terrific people, and even though the Packers may be a bunch of baby-eating aliens from Mars. This was one of the narratives of the game.

You'll pardon me if I cling to language like that. I found myself rooting for the Packers, and once you start rooting for a team, it becomes impossible not to want to believe they have a story that led them to this moment, and it's just as difficult not wanting that story to follow the arc of a subdued but crowd-pleasing sports movie cliche. I did some research beforehand, and Aaron Rodgers sounds like a stand up dude. Plus, the Packers had three Super Bowl wins to the Steelers' six. That makes them underdogs, and I dearly love underdogs. Never mind that Vegas had the game going their way, never mind that nearly every announcer on Fox picked the Packers to win. Did you see the introduction Sam Elliott gave them? This is a working class team. They signify toughness, grit, determination. Admittedly, Sam Elliott also introduced the Steelers, who shared many of these exemplary qualities, but there was also an added element of danger to the Pittsburgh team. Like, maybe they were a little darker, a little more monstrous. Still bad-ass, of course. It wouldn't do for the network to play one side up over the other, because they have no control over who wins. If the Steelers had managed a win, there'd be a lot of talk about determination and fierceness and how Ben R. had earned some kind of "redemption." Yeah, Elliot actually said that last bit in the intro, which is probably the most bullshit that guy has had to deliver since his turn in Road House.

Like I said, I'm not sure on the strategies here, and it's not really my job to talk about the quality of the game itself, but it seemed pretty good, right? Even if the pre-ordained winners did, in fact, win, there were some tense moments. After those first two interceptions, it looked like the Steelers were pretty much screwed. Then for a while, they were much less screwed, and then, in the end, it didn't matter. It's easy to understand why people love this game, because there were moments tonight when it was just so much fun to be watching. That second half, as the Packers made pass after pass, only to fall short of a touchdown and have to go for the field goal instead, was nail-biting to me. Which sounds a little naive, since the Steelers were never once ahead, but it seems like the joy and the adrenaline I get watching is the knowledge that there are no sure things. After those interceptions, it looked like a lock. And it sort of was… except when it wasn't.


Anyway, I hope people will talk more about this in the comments, as well as dealing with what I keep hearing was a bad call in the first half. In terms of the value of Super Bowl XLV as an actual show, well, it got the job done, but not particularly well. Lea Michele sang "America the Beautiful," because Glee was on after the Super Bowl, and then Christina Aguilera came out and flubbed the lyrics to the National Anthem. But at least her singing sounded like music, which is not something you could really say for the Black Eyed Peas' horrible, horrible half-time show. Bad enough that the Peas come out and demonstrated for us just how desperately they need to work in a studio to sound like musicians; we also got Slash embarrassing himself in front of millions, reminding everyone just how great "Sweet Child O' Mine" is in the few seconds before Fergie strolled over to ruin everything. It sounded like the music/vocals mix was off, and there was a brief moment when Fergie's mic cut out, but that was over quickly, and then she kept yelling things. Usher did some jumping, which was enjoyable, but it was hard to take the gigantic "THE BEGINNING" displayed on the monitors at the end as anything but a threat.

Really, the big thing to take from all this is the Black Eyed Peas are as awful as everyone says they are, the Packers won, thus ensuring that no accused rapist who plays football will ever succeed at anything ever again, and the announcers fill a lot of air time saying a simply astonishing amount of nothing at all. There was a little talk about the upcoming labor dispute between the players and the owners that may lead to a lockout, possibly even killing next season before it begins. The most controversial player in the game was treated with kid gloves. And five minutes after that clock counted down to zero and gave Green Bay the Vince Lombardi trophy, they were shilling Green Bay merchandise, so you could be a part of the winning franchise. There was a lot of talk about the legacy of football, and that makes sense, because the reason people care about teams is because it gives us continuity. A continuity that gives fans a feeling of being in on something much bigger than themselves. You get a rush when your team wins, a crash when they lose, and the never ending urge to buy lots and lots of T-shirts. Like everything else in America, there's really no separating your history from your cash. But hey, the game itself was good, and Roethlisberger got tackled, right?

Stray Observations:

  • I didn't talk about the ads, because Noel Murray and Scott Tobias will have their annual Crosstalk about them up soon. I liked the Darth Vader spot, and whoever thought of all those Pepsi Max ads needs to stop doing that.
  • Gah, Frank Caliendo, please go away.