David Zurawik

Olympics opening ceremony makes for fine prime-time TV event

What plays well in a stadium doesn't always work so well on TV.

But if the in-person thumbs-up reviews out of London Friday were accurate, the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics were a winner on both fronts. By and large, the version shown for four and a half hours tape delay on NBC Friday night certainly made for a fine opening to the games.


I hate most opening ceremonies with their overproduced and often idiosyncratic attempts to re-create mythologies with synthesizers, fireworks and way too many dancers. But, for the most part, I really liked what I saw on NBC Friday.

I was only deeply and truly moved once. That came when a choir of children with various disabilities sang "God Save the Queen." From the close-ups, it looked like even the queen was moved by the beauty and earnest efforts of these children -- and just think how many times she has heard that melody.


I was semi-deeply-and-truly-moved when Paul McCartney did "Hey Jude" to close the evening. It certainly wasn't the greatest performance of that tune. McCartney started out a bit wobbly in the vocal, in fact.

Matt Lauer and Bob Costas attributed it to McCartney looking out at the sea of 65,000 and being moved. I'm not so sure. It might just be that he was tackling a very tough song with more than his voice can instantly deliver these days.

But no matter. When he got up from the piano to try and bring the crowd more deeply into the chorus, one of the camera shots from behind made me flash back to the first Beatles concert at Shea Stadium in New York, and I was overwhelmed with how many great cultural moments McCartney has been part of on such stages.

And I instantly felt as if I was witnessing something that mattered. I also felt connected to the tens of thousands who were joining him in song. It might be all illusion, but TV has that kind of power to transport and even facilitate transcendence. Great choice by producer Danny Boyle to have someone as iconic and multi-generational as McCartney close the show.

Two emotional moments in four and  ahalf hours isn't that great. At the end of long, draining week, I did want the opening ceremonies TV experience to wash all over me, playing my emotions like a pinball machine.

But there were other, less intense viewing pleasures, like the cleverly amusing sequence involving Daniel Craig arriving an Buckingham Palace in character as James Bond to pick up the queen and take her in a helicopter to the stadium so she could open the games. The real queen and her corgis played along, and it was a delight. Kudos to Boyle, Craig, the queen and her corgis for striking just the right offbeat comic note.

Speaking of offbeat comedy, Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean, was superb as a symphony musician.

I wasn't quite as moved by the big concept stuff, like the move from England as an agrarian society to the Industrial Revolution. Here we go again, I thought, flashing back to the last winter games in Canada and all the creation myths they were trying to re-stage -- creation myths only a Canadian could care about. Sorry, Canada.


But Boyle didn't go on and on, and the pyrotechnics of the Olympic rings being forged before our eyes were impressive. Did I say I generally hate pyrotechnics?

I could have also done without the teen dancers shaking their way through the 1960, '70s, '80s and '90s. I know they were supposed to mimic the optimism, energy and high spirits of the athletes -- and to some extent they did. But I found their self-conscious sense of cuteness annoying before they ever got past the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

And come on, a musical salute to the UK's National Health Service? Medicine in Baltimore is about as good as it gets, and I can't remember ever wanting to break into song or dance over my experience with the bureaucracies that provide it. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe "Obamacare, The Musical," is going to be the next big thing. But, personally, I think the salute to the health service was a bit much -- and actually kind of sucked.

In fact, the overall production started to drag about two hours in, but NBC wisely gave viewers a three-minute break from the proceedings in the stadium for an interview with Michael Phelps. At first when the hosts were teasing it, I thought the decision was a mistake that would make it harder for me to get into the spectacle and pageantry of the opening ceremonies when the cameras took us from the studio back to the games.

But NBC was right. By the time Phelps came on with Ryan Seacrest (yes, special correspondent Ryan Seacrest with his ankle boots), I was ready for a change of pace. And Seacrest seems to have developed something that almost feels like a rapport with Phelp -- almost.

NBC started strong Friday night, and there is plenty to praise -- from executive producer Jim Bell to director Bucky Gunts, a Baltimore native. Meredith Vieira was superb in the co-hosting she did with Lauer -- not a second of wasted effort or silliness. She defines solid. Costas was a little less smartalecky than usual, and on most nights, I would complain about that because I love his ironic, wiseguy edge. But again, I think NBC was right: There wasn't a lot of space for irony and wisecracks Friday night. I'm not sure why that was the case, but there wasn't. Maybe it was queen, I don't know.


In the end, as much as I generally hate the hype, self-importance, pulled punches and hero worship of Olympics TV coverage, I am mainly feeling good about what NBC delivered on this opening night.

I'll be be back with NBC Saturday to see Phelps swim. Stop back, maybe I won't be feeling so good about the coverage.

Oh, National Health Service, of thee I sing.