If the goal of an Opening Ceremony is to get you talking about the Olympics, consider London's a success.
True, much of the talk inspired by NBC's tape-delayed broadcast Friday night probably hovers somewhere between "well, that was just nuts" to "what the …?" But as long as it shoves the Olympics to the front of the national conversation, NBC will take it.
Granted, "strange" seems to be the Opening Ceremony stock in trade these days, as each organizer tries to out-do, and out-shock, the last. But even when you apply the 1992 Albertville opener-as-Cirque du Soleil standard, London's show, designed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle— with its grassy knoll and light-board hospital beds — was boisterously, Britishly odd.
It was delightful at times, to be sure. But just as often, it was trying so hard to create magic and impart meaning that it became impenetrable.
The Queen parachuting into the stadium as a Bond girl? Fun. Rowen Atkinson destroying Chariots of Fire? Peculiar, but fun. The flying bicycle dove? Also fun, even if it did look more like a flying monkey.
But the dancing sick-kids salute to the National Health Service, complete with a Mary Poppins air raid and a giant Franken-baby? Much less fun, and more than a bit bizarre. "I don't know if that's cute or creepy," said NBC's Matt Lauer proclaimed about the baby, as if "cute" were actually an option.
As for the house-afire digital-age tour of British popular music, it was way too long, and the story it was barely telling kept getting in the way of the songs. But even at that, it was better than an opening effort to tell the history of Britain, complete with a pause for World War I and a rip-up-the-grass switch from agrarian to industrial that aimed for spectacle and instead just seemed like the longest scene change ever aired.
Perhaps the lesson is that you cannot tell the story of a people and culture on a stadium field, no matter how many high-tech enhancements and volunteer dancers you have at your disposal. Note to Rio: Please, don't try.
It's hard to imagine why these events have to run on so long — you could have recreated the first Olympics in the time it took to get to those kids lighting that cauldron (a neat effect), let alone by time you got to Paul McCartney's concert. And while we're pondering, are we now stuck with that silly looking hill in the stadium for the next two weeks, or was it a one-night-stand folly?
A scattershot collection of lights, songs and music, London's ceremony lacked the awe-inspiring, heavily rehearsed, synchronized mass madness of Beijing. On the plus side, if it seldom made you marvel, it also never forced you to consider the amount of state-organized repression required to get that many people to drum as one.
As narrators and hosts, Lauer and Meredith Vieira had their moments, chief among them Lauer's Franken-baby comment — and there were certainly times we needed them to make sense of what we were watching. But too much of what they had to say was delivered in that bland, all-is-grand-and-glorious style NBC so often imposes on the Olympics. And one does wish Olympic hosts would realize that they don't have to share every single fact about the Games or their participants contained in the media guide.
Thank heavens for Bob Costas, who brought some life to the parade of nations, and seemed to bring out the better in Lauer. He also made time in the broadcast to honor the memory of the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich 40 years ago, something the IOC and the London organizers refused to do.
Talk like that, we can always use.