The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 17, 2014
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The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 17, 2014

A week into the Olympics, things can start to seem stale. It’s no longer a novelty to turn on your television and see men and women flipping through the skies, and all the “what’s the point of curling?” jokes have been beaten all the way to death. This inevitable enthusiasm fizzle has been especially noticeable in Sochi. The pre-games rush of rah rah patriotism and fierce indignation at Russia’s awful human rights record have both died down considerably since the Opening Ceremonies. And so NBC milks the events they know will draw viewers (see: ice skating), push for more and more emotional interviews to make headlines (see: Bode Miller’s breakdown), and embrace unforeseen circumstances as twists rather than failures (see: Bob Costas’ pinkeye benching).

So in the spirit of mixing things up, I decided to take a look at the live events to see how they might stack up against primetime, where they’re repackaged into neatly inspiring stories. In the spirit of full disclosure, I realized that my assigned Olympics day includes the finals for pairs ice dancing, and that the live commentary would be coming from America’s new bedazzled sweethearts, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinksi.

I had been dying to experience the Weir/Lipinski dynamic for myself ever since I laid eyes on Weir’s disco ball tuxedo jacket, but the combination of having a day job, not having cable, and living on the west coast made this a particularly hard mission. For their first Olympics as commentators, Weir and Lipinski are NBC’s designated day players, meaning their commentary is limited solely to the live runs on NBCSN. I know I’m not the only one who wanted to see what all the fuss was about and then had to settle for Twitter feeds and Weir’s Instagram—both great, but hardly the same as watching. Thanks to Presidents Day, though, I finally got the opportunity to catch all three hours of live ice dancing and incredibly, I was never bored.

The main challenges the day crew has is that, again, the live ice dancing round isthree hours long. It wasn’t broken up by other events, and while primetime knows they’ll be covering the top few contenders plus Americans, Lipinski and Weir get to settle in and judge every single pair that steps out on that ice. They also don’t get a replay to comment further; if they have opinions, they better just say them.

Guided by an amused Terry Gannon, Lipinski and Weir strike a consistent balance between professional criticism, backstage insights, and sartorial musings (“I love her usage of proper headbanding”). This might have gotten lost in the Weir’s glitzy outfits may have made the most headlines, but I was surprised by how quickly I forgot about that pomp and circumstance. I’m not saying the outfits aren’t perfect—they are—but they’re onscreen for maybe ten minutes total throughout the entire bloc. If Lipinski and Weir weren’t interesting to listen to as commentators, Weir’s clothing would be the only thing anyone would remember about this pairing. They’d be a Sochi footnote, the only Trivial Pursuit question you might actually know in the impossible sports section. But the two are so charming together and passionate about the sport that it would be a shame if Weir’s disco ball jacket was the only story to come out of their pairing.

It helps that you don’t need to stalk their Instagrams to understand that they’ve become friends; their rapport makes it obvious. Lipinski is constantly thrilled to be there, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, Weir is made for one-liners, but most impressively, they’re rarely there just for the sake of being quips. They’re more colorful than your average commentators’ descriptions, sure, but they’re often more effective. He describes ice dancers as the “peacocks” of skating for their showmanship, and skilled single dancers in need of partners as “the stallions of the ice dancing world.” Showy terms? Sure. Perfect descriptors? Absolutely.

But the most refreshing aspect of Lipinski and Weir’s particular brand of commentating is that they never default to that USA!, USA!, USA! mindset that so much of NBC’s coverage relies upon. They’re happy for their compatriots, but Weir will still point out when one partner is stronger than the other, or in his words, when one is “the star on the ice” and the other’s “a little bit oafish.” (Gannon: “I love the fact that we're at the point where we let the ‘oafish’ comment go.” Lipinski: “It’s totally normal.”) Lipinski also doesn’t shy away from expressing her disappointment in lackluster, “junior-ish” routines.  This honesty also helps sell their admiration when they deign to dole it out. Weir has a soft spot for the acrobatic pair from Azerbaijan, Lipinski is happy to have everyone play a Disney prince and/or princess, and they both were so impressed with the Russian bronze medalists’ black swan routine that they came close to calling for a ban on future Swan Lake use. All this aside, however, I found that Weir and Lipinski impressed me most when they fell silent. Only two pairs managed this feat: Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s stunning, romantic dance, followed by American champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White chasing each other around the ice so nimbly it almost didn’t look real.  After getting to know Lipinski and Weir’s brand of criticism, and learning to trust that they were telling the truth rather than trying to put a sheen on everything Olympic, I knew their silence meant they had to be stunned into it.

The primetime side is incredibly jarring after the live rounds. Whereas the live show is a constant stream of activity, primetime aims for a more behind-the-scenes experience with video spotlights on interesting and/or American athletes and heartfelt cuts to moms in bleachers. Tonight’s pre-taped packages largely do what’s expected of them—highlight American players, play up rivalries that may or may not exist, play that booming drum at every possible opportunity—though we also get a clip of Mary Carillo’s upcoming documentary on Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding (sure), and Russian bobsledder Alexander Zubkov lands a first hour spotlight even though he doesn’t speak a word of English (awesome). The network’s relief that an American ice dance team was a real contender for gold is palpable, since primetime NBC knows that figure skating is its main draw. So, it teases the ice dancing finals for two hours with pre-taped shots of the pairs roaming about backstage. This gives NBC plenty of time to remind us that the defending Canadian champions and the American pair that got the silver in Vancouver are the top two ice dancing pairs in history, and they practice on thesame rink. Once we finally got to the ice dancing, we saw the two lower-placing American teams and the final group of medal contenders to the commentary from an enthusiastic Tracy Wilson and Tom Hammond. Wilson is the only one to speak up during the routines; Hammond only talks to say it was great, and coming up next, a pair that’s also great! I don’t necessarily advocate watching three hours of live content every day, but watching more of the live rounds made me appreciate the final result so much more. Ultimately, my enjoyment of the programming came down to sensibility. Pre-taped primetime NBC is a slick operator; it’s a pageant in a storyteller’s clothing. Live NBCSN—especially with Weir and Lipinski—would rather you get comfortable and join the chat.

Other sports happened, too! Tonight’s broadcast also featured men’s aerial jumping and the two-man bobsled, both of which included surprising but entirely possible U.S. medal contenders. In all honesty, aerial jumping gives me weird vertigo vibes so I only saw what I could through my fingers, but wild card Mac Bohonnan sure looked good for having being only eighteen and only having learned that trick last week. Over in bobsled country, the U.S. medaled for the first time since 1952 despite the pilot’s injury (maybe it was ‘the new BMW-designed sled, the ultimate sliding machine,” so says a commentator severa ldozen times). Oh, and before that, we get to watch an NBC reporter tell the Jamaican bobsled team there’s now a reggae theme song for them out there somewhere, and then give a lucky egg a la Cool Runnings. It is exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. At the very least, this incident sums up NBC’s Olympics coverage pretty spectacularly: a well-meaning reporter plays up those aspects of people that play well in movies, like rivalries and interviews about dead relatives, then finds it doesn’t really track in real life. That’s why the live combination of Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir, and Tara Lipinski has gone viral. It’s week two, and at least they’re something different.

Stray observations:

  • Bob Costas is back, and he looks…fine! I think! Honestly hard to tell with those glasses, but he seems chipper?
  • Did… I see two dudes in parkas holding hands in front of the ice skating ring?
  • There’s been some grumbling as to whether ice dancing is a real sport. I get that, but look at Charlie White doubled over in exhaustion after they finish their gold medal dance and tell me that shit isn’t strenuous.
  • Aeralist Anton Kushner’s full-throttled glee at a 134 is kind of a beautiful thing.  Gotta love someone who so clearly just loves to win.
  • I don’t know how much I like Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s pattern of playing “ethnic” people in their programs. Also, not sure Scheherazade talking her way out of the constant threat of death is all that romantic, but what do I know.
  • Weir, when the German pairs’ music began with birds chirping: “Does that mean he slept over?”
  • Weir, on a team’s James Bond routine: “If you’re going to throw down and skate to Adele at the Olympics, you better throw down.”

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