Review: ‘The XXIX Summer Olympics’

Watching the Summer Olympics has been immensely satisfying. Yet the key to that enjoyment has less to do with the staggering images from Beijing or NBC's sprawling eight-network buffet than the revelatory application of TiVo to slice away the fat from this gluttonous feast.

Watching the Summer Olympics has been immensely satisfying. Yet the key to that enjoyment has less to do with the staggering images from Beijing or NBC’s sprawling eight-network buffet than the revelatory application of TiVo to slice away the fat from this gluttonous feast. Of course, time-shifting and ad-skipping through dead spots hardly represents music to NBC’s ears, but inasmuch as the Olympics have been transformed into slick primetime entertainment — produced and packaged for maximum effect — for discerning viewers, turnabout is fair play.

So how have the TiVo Olympics worked in my house? Simple: Leave the TV on NBC. Begin watching 30 minutes after the action begins. Back up TiVo a half-hour, catching up to real time by zipping through commercial pods, heartwarming personality profiles and tedious preliminaries. Freeze again and do something else — hey, “The Daily Show’s” on! — for a half-hour, then repeat.

Ta-da! Consumed this way, four hours of coverage fly by. Gymnasts soar, swimmers knife through the pool in record time, volleyball players dive into the sand and soar above at the net. As for men’s synchronized diving? Zap. Sorry, but bye-bye.

In terms of the actual coverage, amid the excess it’s easy to overlook some of the first-rate work turned in by NBC’s analysts, especially gymnastics color man Tim Daggett and swim expert Rowdy Gaines. They’re so good at capturing the excitement of their respective sports while explaining the intricacies to lay people, it’s almost a shame they only get trotted out every few years.

Then again, rarity is precisely what makes the Olympics special. Amid an age of programming plenty heaped upon plenty, the biennial nature of the Games (oscillating between winter and summer) ensures that they maintain a unique quality. In their fleeting careers, most qualifying athletes at best have the opportunity for a couple of Olympics in them, despite a lifetime of training for their moment in the sun (or gym, or pool). Small wonder their victories and disappointments resonate so powerfully.

NBC deserves credit, too, for indulging less in the unbridled jingoism that has frequently plagued past Games. Sure, it’s still America first — did the women’s gymnasts win the gold? No? Are they crushed? Can we get the camera up real close to check? — but admiration for athletes from other countries seems less grudging, as well as more celebratory and in keeping with Olympic ideals.

Platforming the action across multiple networks has also been a blessing, providing glimpses of less-publicized sports (who knew watching badminton and table tennis could be so much fun?) as well as match-ups that don’t involve participants from the U.S. — something that seldom happens in primetime given the America-centric bent. There’s nothing like watching Greco-Roman wrestling between Georgia and China or Serbia versus Brazil in women’s volleyball to remind you that primetime only exposes the tip of the Olympian iceberg.

Cynicism comes easily regarding the Olympics, especially when so much of NBC’s coverage — with its heavy dose of beaming mothers and fretting relatives — seems designed specifically to craft human-interest segments for the “Today” show and exalt stars for their inevitable appearance on cereal boxes.

This relentless search for “heroes” has reached predictable heights surrounding gold-encrusted swimmer Michael Phelps, whose reticence has only seemed to make network analysts and hosts drool over him all the more.

At their best, though, the Olympics thwart controversy, missteps and bloat — showcasing exhilarating moments of jubilation and astonishing skill, the kind that makes you wonder, “How in hell does someone learn to do that?”

There’s just the little matter of mastering a less exhausting art — fast-forwarding to find them — and then sticking that landing on the couch.

The XXIX Summer Olympics

Sports; NBC
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