Checking in on NBC’s prime time coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics for the second time, I’m pleased to report that it’s gotten better, and has become less aggressively stupid than the network’s coverage of the summer games a couple of years ago. I wish I could say this shows that the network values my opinion and is responsive to criticism, but it has more to do with the way the star American athletes, whose images NBC likes to milk, have been crashing and burning—and that’s just the ones who have actually been in attendance. (A message on the screen during tonight’s broadcast reminds viewers that, if they get bored enough, they can go to Facebook and live-chat with Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, who has plenty of time to keep up with her social media obligations because she’s not in freaking Sochi!)
As the big stars like Shaun White have fallen by the wayside, the network has had no choice but to dial back a little on its prepackaged narratives and devote more air time to the lesser-known Americans who’ve particularly distinguished themselves, and even, in some cases, athletes who are presumed to be of no interest to the viewing audience, because they’re not American, but who have won their events, which NBC, in a pinch, hopes will impart to them some modest novelty value. It’s a subtle shift, but a shift in the right direction. It’s nice to see the awesome Slovenian skier Tina Maze being interviewed when she’s still glowing from the thrill of taking the gold in the women’s giant slalom. So what if we first have to sit through an interview with Mikaela Shiffrin, an American whom the network spends the evening promoting as if she were about to be added to the cast of Hannibal? (A few weeks ago, she was one of seven athletes who appeared on an NBC special called How To Raise An Olympian.) She comes in fifth but manages to keep it in perspective. She didn’t so much lose as fail to win by a wide enough margin to actually collect a medal. “Two-point-something off the podium,” she says, “is really close.”
Outdoor winter sports can be both exciting and soothingly beautiful to look at on TV, and by now, NBC has been filming them long enough to sometimes get the camera in the right place. (The skiing and sledding in Sochi probably look better on TV than on location, where, as an announcer gently puts it, “Humidity will be a talking point.”) One highlight of tonight’s coverage is the snowboard cross race, featuring Nate Holland, an X Games vet whose Olympics show reel is one “agony of defeat” moment after another. Overhead shots of half a dozen guys barreling over the sloping track at top speed makes for some thrilling imagery, especially after the first match-up is over and somebody wipes the accumulated rainfall off the camera lens.
As the racers come charging toward the finish line in near-unison, they look as if they’re about to break into song, as if this were an experimental, highly kinetic production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. For some reason, one of the announcers feels it necessary to point out that the winning racer always keeps looking ahead to see where he’s going, rather than turn around to see what’s going on in back of him. Because of this, he does miss out on seeing some great shit. One guy flames out and, in the process of skidding off the track, takes another racer down with him. True to form, Holland “catches big air,” a phrase that I would love to believe the announcer got from that old New York Times glossary of “grunge”-speak, “lands flat” and, dead in the water, looks up to receive a great view of one of the Italians jumping over him.
By then, the NBC announcers have fallen in love with one of the French athletes, Paul-Henri De La Rue, who stands out not just for his snowboarding but for his intriguingly bandaged nose when he’s seen idly standing on the sidelines. At first, I thought the announcer said that De La Rue had recently been sent to the douche corner, but when I hit rewind, I was disappointed to learn that he’d actually recently been put into a medically induced coma. The announcers don’t say whether he’d been brought out of it yet, and in the end, their special interest serves him as the usual kiss of death. Another Frenchman, Pierre Vaultier, wins the gold, and Alex Deibold, an American who has the great good fortune not to be Nate Holland, ends up with the bronze.
Meanwhile, the daredevil freestyle skiers are converging on the half-pipe. The announcers fixate on two Americans: David Wise, who’s 23 and married with a daughter, and 19-year-old Lyman Currier, who has some of that goofy-hunky Michael Phelps thing going on. As Currier stands in front of a big outdoor screen projecting an image of his head while Wise’s wife stands in the crowd waving a big photo of their kid, you can practically hear the internal debate going on inside the NBC promotional department: David’s a good guy, solid, works hard, always brings flowers home on Valentine’s Day… but Lyman’s just so dreeeamy!! Lyman, one of the announcers drools, is “the quintessential middle child of the U. S. team.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but maybe he’s troubled in a way that I’m supposed to think only I could change. A shot of Lyman falling down during his first go at the half-pipe confirms that he definitely has a problem with gravity. When the chips are down, though, he sucks it up, heads back to the course, and falls down again. “He’s grabbing his leg, oh wow,” says an announcer, as Lyman curls up and makes a sound that some enterprising amateur filmmaker might want to use on the soundtrack of his Bigfoot video. David Wise takes the gold.
Tonight’s broadcast concludes with the medal ceremony honoring another Team U.S.A. success story: Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won the gold in ice dancing Monday. NBC’s coverage reportedly set off a full-scale goddamn social media seizure when viewers were denied the chance to see Davis and White receive their medals. Angry viewers assumed this is because the network hates America, but it seems to have had more to do with the fact that the actual medal ceremony didn’t take place until earlier today. Many of the indignant tweeters will presumably now use social media to take credit for having strong-armed NBC into doing the right thing and finally showing the medal ceremony that had not yet taken place when they were having their fit. But to be fair, the way NBC has been dicking around with the concept of real time in order to cram these events into primetime and try to gin up suspense over contests in which the outcomes have already been reported, it would seem kind of lame for the network to defend itself on the grounds that it can’t show a medal ceremony until it actually happens.
- If you read “What’s On Tonight?,” you know that Zack Handlen was originally scheduled to be here. Unfortunately, Zack, whose writing is marked by his determination to fully, deeply understand the shows he reviews, wound up getting so deep into the mind of Bob Costas that he had to call in sick. The man’s the Kirk Lazarus of the TV Club.
- Costas, who was replaced by Matt Lauer when I watched last week, is back now. This seems to please many people, and Lauer’s performance was much criticized by others, but I’ll be damned if I can tell what difference it makes whether it’s Costas and Lauer or Perd Hapley hanging out in a warm set, telling us which anonymous pair of interchangeable reporters will be in charge of describing the next series of events that will be going on somewhere else.
- The biggest name tonight may be Lolo Jones, the not-award-winning Olympic hurdler who is now in the ballast position on the U. S. women’s bobsled team. Anticipating interviewing her, reporter Lewis Johnson offered viewers what he seemed to think was a startling revelation: There were hurdles backstage, maybe 10 of them, which the bobsledders sometimes used to help limber up. He expressed his concern that Jones might see one, have a flashback to failing to clear the last hurdle at her previous Olympics, and break down. Then he cheered himself up with the thought that maybe seeing hurdles would cheer her up, make her feel at home, and enhance her performance. Does NBC really not have any old Daffy Duck cartoons they could be running from time to time, if the only alternative is to broadcast this shit?
- The sports on view tonight are all fast, high-energy spectacles, and it’s to NBC’s credit that they didn’t make much use of slow-motion and freeze-frames, preferring to let the action speak for itself. The big exception was the slalom. The unlucky principal recipient of the “let’s slow this down and talk about it” treatment was a skier who acted as if she’d been coached by Blake Edwards, riding straight into one of the gates and carrying the gate panel “down like a napkin in her lap!” It was embarrassing, but then she made it to the finish line, and at least it was over. Then the announcers called for the instant replay. Turned out she had the gate panel on her face for longer than she could possibly have wanted the world to know.