As a “bred and buttered” southerner who attended—and thoroughly enjoyed—Atlanta’s Summer Olympics in 1996, I still remember how annoying it was to pick up the Journal-Constitution every day during the games and read excerpts from the sniffy foreign press about how the city was failing as a host. We got hammered for inadequate transportation (which I never experienced personally) and long lines (again, not that I noticed). And Atlanta was especially criticized for an Opening Ceremony that tried to celebrate the city and the region, in ways the international media found tacky. There was was one editorial in particular from overseas that tsk-tsked a segment featuring pick-up trucks, which the writer declared is what southerners ride in “when they go out to burn black churches.” Look, I thought the trucks were a bit much too. But jeez. How about a modicum of charity?
All of which is my way of saying that if you’ve come here expecting me to rip apart the London Opening Ceremony, well, sorry to disappoint. Have at it in the comments section if you like. Personally, I’m a fan of the Olympics in general, and the Opening Ceremonies in particular. Not that I don’t have criticisms—which I will get to. But after the magnificence of Zhang Yimou’s Beijing opener four years ago, I hope people have come to appreciate that these events can be genuinely beautiful. And even when they’re not, there’s still something to be said for elaborate pageantry for its own sake, and for the honest effort to express something personal and poignant, while still putting on a TV show.
Let me get some of major complaints out of the way up top (some of which I’ll expound on in the Stray Observations). Even at tonight’s accelerated pace, The Parade Of Nations is interminable. And I hate the way the NBC announcers feel obliged to explain everything, even if that means talking over music and speeches. I also hate their insta-analysis of the big moments, as when Matt Lauer said, “This is what they’ll write about in the newspapers tomorrow,” after a Queen Elizabeth II imitator parachuted in. And there’s a weird kind of flattening-out of popular culture and social progress that occurs in these ceremonies, such that Sex Pistols and The Clash can all be repurposed as generally emblematic of “the UK,” losing some of their actual resonance along the way. (I hope everybody watching realized that when Johnny Rotten sang “God Save The Queen,” he didn’t really mean it, man.)
But while the ceremony’s director Danny Boyle didn’t nail every element, he did pull of some genuinely special moments. And yes, he stumbled badly at times too. But don’t we also want a little of that from our Olympic ceremonies? Don’t we want to marvel at how Boyle transformed the field of Olympic Stadium into “England’s green and pleasant land,” and then later roll our eyes as nurses from the National Health do a sloppily choreographed dance while Mike Oldfield plays the bass and little nightmare-men crawl around the stage?
Often tonight the best and the worst of Boyle’s efforts were inextricably intertwined. One of the longest segments of the Opening—so long that NBC stuck a commercial in the middle of it, which was bad form, in my opinion—was meant to recognize the UK’s transition into the modern, digital age, and it was like an extended clearing-out of all the movies and music Boyle couldn’t otherwise get to. The good part: International exposure for The Jam, The Specials, A Matter Of Life And Death and Gregory’s Girl (plus Trainspotting, of course). The bad part: The snippets were so short and there were so many of them that it all quickly became a muddle of images and sounds.
NBC was at its best and worst during that segment too. Meredith Viera sang along with The Rolling Stones, which was kind of sweet and spontaneous. But she also explained that this whole piece of the ceremony was a tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, and added, “If you haven’t heard of him… we hadn’t either.” Few things irritate me more than when news and/or sports commentators try to be “jus’ plain folks” by boasting about what they don’t know. Either they’re lying, which is bad enough, or they genuinely don’t know, which is worse. Is it too much to expect some measure of expertise from the people deemed worthy of being on television?
Overall though, I found the arc of Boyle’s grand story to be quite charming, as he showed his homeland’s transformation from an agrarian culture to an industrial one: first by having Kenneth Branagh read aloud from The Tempest, and then by having soot-covered workers emerge from a giant tree while a forge poured fake molten metal across the field and into Olympic ring-shaped molds. The latter’s an image I’m sure we’ll be seeing on NBC over and over for the next two weeks. It was stunning.
As for Boyle’s salute to socialized medicine, at least it was coupled with an appreciation of the great British children’s literature, featuring a reading from J.K. Rowling, and a scene where giant inflatables of Voldemort, Captain Hook and Cruella De Vil were vanquished by a descending army of Mary Poppinses. Scoff if you must, but my kids were still awake and watching that part of the show, and my daughter—a voracious reader—was delighted. (She also just about hit the floor laughing at the sketch where an exaggeratedly bored Rowan Atkinson played the repetitive synthesizer part of the Chariots Of Fire theme.)
And as aggravating as NBC’s coverage can be, they do get the right pictures more often than not, and the announcing crew doesn’t shy away from the more controversial material. Throughout the night, Bob Costas and company raised questions about London’s readiness, and noted how economic and political turmoil had impacted certain delegations. They aren’t mere boosters; they do make an effort to be journalists.
But the main reason to watch any Olympic Opening Ceremony is for the spectacle and the surprise, and Boyle and the London Olympic organizers provided quite a bit of both. The torch-lighting portion was especially amazing: Future Olympians lit copper “petals” that rose to form one big flowery cauldron, as a line of fireworks exploded throughout the city, a projection of runner panned across the crowd, and Pink Floyd boomed over the loudspeakers. I mean… damn.
There followed a rousing round of “Hey Jude” by Paul McCartney, which was fine, though not as enjoyable as an earlier performance by Arctic Monkeys, who sang “Come Together” while glowing bicyclists circled the track and floated into the air, symbolizing doves of peace. Sure, Costas did his best to mar the moment by talking over the song, feeding us almost completely irrelevant facts about the history of bicycling. But, y’know? This is what this is. I don’t expect it to be anything else.
- People complain that the Oscars could be shortened by moving technical categories like costuming and sound effects to before the ceremony, which is a move I personally would detest. And yet I do so I wish The Parade Of Nations went un-televised. Even though it was relatively brisk tonight, it still took forever, and on NBC it’s mainly an excuse for Bob Costas to sound like a boob as he makes fun of smaller countries and less-popular sports (as happened tonight, when he took the appearance of the North Korean contingent as an opportunity to make a smirky Kim Jong Il joke, and then proceeded to make fun of the actually awesome sport of badminton, for no apparent reason). My wife enjoys The Parade, so perhaps I’m in the minority here. But I’d like to see the whole shebang replaced by an Animaniacs or They Might Be Giants song.
- I did however enjoy the march of the Independent Olympic Athletes contingent: the Notre Dame football of the Summer Games.
- I was disappointed that Danny Boyle didn’t play nation-specific pop songs during The Parade: The Who’s “Armenia City In The Sky,” The Psychedelic Furs’ “India,” Van Halen’s “Panama,” Rancid’s “Rwanda,” Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” Tom Waits’ “Singapore,” Minutemen’s “Viet Nam”… What else? Make your suggestions in the comments.
- Did you know Qatar is pronounced “cutter?” I didn’t.
- It only took about 10 minutes of the Opening Ceremonies telecast before the announcers started telling us that Brits call the subway “the tube” and the television “the telly.” Get ready to be sick of that over the next two weeks.
- Has Meredith Viera been in London for a while? She’s already got a little bit of the tourist-accent working—that thing where you unconsciously start speaking a little like your hosts.
- Okay, help me out: Who was the woman delivering the opening narration alongside Ewan McGregor?
- Gotta admit: I was genuinely surprised when Boyle’s film of Daniel Craig as James Bond ended with him meeting the actual Queen Elizabeth II. I was also genuinely amused when Meredith Viera insisted that the Queen has “a wicked sense of humor and you are seeing it on display tonight,” over a shot Her Majesty standing stone-faced.
- Do you think that when Queen Elizabeth II hears “God Save The Queen” at state events, she sings “God save meeeee…” in her head?
- Boyle, on directing Her Majesty: “That was all tickety-boo.”
- Hey Bob Costas, even though Arctic Monkeys have what sounds to you like a funny name, they’re pretty much a straight-ahead rock band of the kind you liked when you were a young man, so there’s no reason to act so surprised that they could pull of a credible Beatles cover. But hey, I know where you’re coming from, man. You don’t trust anyone under 50.
- Pre-ceremony, there was an interview between two American gymnasts and Ryan Seacrest, who told the girls that he’d spoken to Justin Bieber and that the Bieb was sending a care package. The gymnasts gave a polite nod, like teenage nieces who don’t want to tell their childless uncle that they don’t play with dolls any more.
- Seacrest was surprisingly probing in his interview with Michael Phelps, but still, every interview with Phelps should begin with, “How high are you right now?”
- Look, I get why people complain that NBC won’t show the major events of these Olympics live. But I read someone on Twitter earlier today suggesting that NBC not showing the Opening Ceremony live is an example why the network’s in last place. Which is kind of a nutty perspective. Does this person really think that NBC would’ve drawn great ratings if they’d shown the Opening at one o’clock on a Friday afternoon on the west coast? Besides, if there’s any part of the Olympics that can wait for prime time, it’s the Opening Ceremony. Later in the week, when the internet begins spoiling swimming results for me, I’ll be a lot crankier. But I’ll still understand the situation. People watch TV at night, because they’re at work during the day. And NBC pays a pile for these games, so they want to air their prestige events in prime time, when the most people will be tuned in. This is the reality, and people should be used to it by now. In the meantime, the network deserves credit for showing so many live events on sister channels like MSNBC, CNBC and NBC Sports (formerly Versus), during the day and late at night.
- On the other hand, someone else on Twitter today reminded me of this funny Alan Partridge take on the Olympics, so Twitter isn’t all bad.
If you haven’t heard, different writers from our TV Club crew will be writing up each night of NBC’s primetime coverage, so check back here every day to talk about the games, gripe about—or praise?—NBC’s broadcasts, and just generally apply a poultice to alleviate your Olympic fever.