The First Half
My Super Bowl story is not unique. I had no rooting interest and followed the regular season with only passing interest. It probably wasn’t different from your Sunday (assuming you’re not from or have any ties to Baltimore or San Francisco, and/or had ungodly amounts of money riding on the game) in all the typical ways. Small chicken wings and smaller talk. About nine of us in my parents’ living room, a panorama of assorted relatives and family friends spread out on the couch and chairs my mom had arranged earlier that morning, hours before game time. I invited two friends over, both Niners fans. One from Marin County, the other from Los Angeles with no ostensible Bay Area connections and yet still refers to the team as “we.” Both were sunburnt from trying to play two-hand touch football earlier that day; their faces approached the same scarlet as the Niners’ jerseys, growing more and more red as the game went on.
My parents’ curly-haired mutt Stanley ran around the room, taking turns chewing our feet, spilling beer bottles onto the floor with his tail, climbing onto the coffee table to snag a couple baby carrots off our plates. He was liked by nobody. There were platters of little meats and heated but vague discussion. Conversation revolved around a rotating triplet of topics that we’d all read or heard about the past week. My sister’s boyfriend mentioned Bill Simmons’s Friday column about Ray Lewis’ alleged steroid use. We made clunky, semi-funny jokes about deer antler spray; we wondered why they weren’t cutting to shots of the Harbaugh parents more often. My father had a panoply of unfrozen cocktail meats spread out on the coffee table. Tiny Red Hots, barely cooked chicken wings, golf ball-size meatballs—all the same reddish brown. My two friends politely speared them with toothpicks and then gently set them aside in their cocktail napkins.
I enjoy the Super Bowl for the same reasons I enjoyed Beyonce’s performance Sunday evening: I’m into spectacle. I can appreciate the sheer, albeit cliché, Americanness—both ironically and sincerely. The million-dollar thirty-second TV spots, mini-blockbusters selling cars, life insurance, electronics, and Scientology (the ad that actually got the biggest reaction the entire night, including anything that happened during the game); the two-week media onslaught of scandals and human interest stories. In the days leading up to Sunday, the game naturally became a forced referendum on the safety of this specific sport and the use of steroids in all sports. With moxie my mom tried building up some debate about the issue, but it just ended up dying on the altar, too broad and hackneyed for growth.
A lot of this sounds like vague posturing, but that’s because that’s what I think the Super Bowl basically is. A lot of weird things happened during this particular Super Bowl—the inevitable-seeming near comeback, the blackout, the brothers, etcetera etcetera—but those things didn’t feel particularly weird. Even the whole shebang’s single glitch had an unreal sheen. Inevitably, no matter how much it deviates from the script, the game and everything that surrounds it—the commercials, the halftime show—always becomes a blown-out metaphor for every iota of contemporary American culture.
The Halftime Show
Midway through the halftime show, my mom’s uncle had to politely excuse himself from the room because he claimed he was worried about seizures. At certain points it looked like Beyonce was performing on the surface of a giant scanner—which makes sense, since soon after copies of herself started dancing onscreen. The holograms blew my dad’s mind: he wondered if they were even holograms. Which one was the real Beyoncé and how were they all moving so differently?
Am I the only one who thought Kelly Rowland quietly stole the show?
The Second Half & The Blackout
On TV the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is a colossal UFO, a concrete singularity. The luxury car logo beamed onto the ceiling in neon purple makes it resemble at times the wall of a blacklit dorm. The stadium is ringed by giant fluorescent halos of light, halos that became more resonant and histrionic during Beyonce’s performance, and then pathetically ineffectual when half of them went dark shortly after.
Early in the second half, following Jacoby Jones’s 108-yard touchdown return, interest in the game (barring my two Niners friends) began to tail off. Some wandered into other rooms, others flat out left. Conversation lazed towards other topics: George Saunders, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The blackout almost seemed like a response to our boredom (the NFL, as well as CBS, is keenly attuned to the needs of its audience). Initially no one noticed that the game had even stopped, that half the stadium was unlit. It was cool, maybe even neat, to watch the game suddenly go “off script,” but it was about the most unremarkable catastrophe possible. The blackout raised a lot of questions that no one had the patience or wherewithal to answer. Was it bad for the ratings? Was it good for the Niners? How would Shannon Sharpe and the gang respond to forced improvisation? (A: Not well.) “Has this ever happened before?” was repeated every few minutes in my parents’ living room, but no one cared enough or knew how to check Twitter for some kind of consensus.
Either it’s impossible to perceive—between the marathon commercial breaks and the game’s perpetual reminder of its own importance—any recognizable rhythm, or there simply isn’t a rhythm to the game to begin with, the teams so completely unused to playing with all this pomp and circumstance, the staccato pace. The Ravens slowly built a large lead in the first half, only to watch that lead obliterated by the 49ers in a four-minute stretch in the third quarter. The Super Bowl’s relation to an actual NFL game is roughly similar to a regular Friday night date’s resemblance to a full-on wedding. When half the lights in the extraterrestrial Superdome suddenly cut out, it didn’t seem totally shocking or all that weird.
Did the thirty-four-minute interruption halt the Ravens’ momentum or ignite the 49ers? I don’t know, I can’t say. It seems pretty arbitrary and specious to argue either way. My guess is that San Francisco was due for some breaks—a recovered fumble here, a delay-of-game penalty there. Baltimore’s lead never felt insurmountable, nor did it ever feel like they were completely dominant. The final score came down to a few breaks—some botched playcalling, a couple misspent timeouts—and the effect of a blackout on that final score is far less tangible and probable than, say, a potentially missed holding call in the end zone.
Whatever happened during the blackout, when the game finally resumed, it started to become great. By the Niners’ last, failed set of downs on the seven-yard line, my buddies’ faces were a violent crimson. Everyone in my parents’ living room was rapt, stunned by how quickly San Francisco had made this a real game. Caught up in the excitement, Stanley started barking wildly, drowning out Simms and Nantz’s voices. He jumped on the coffee table, spilling a plate of baby carrots everywhere. The Niners ran three ineffective plays: a handoff to LaMichael James on first down followed by two incomplete passes to Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone. Kaepernick never attempted to run, or throw to Vernon Davis over the middle, as if the whole team had already resigned itself to losing. The team looked, in a word, scared.
The fade to the corner of the endzone is one of the least effective, most unfun plays in football, and, holding call or not, the play seemed doomed as soon as Kaepernick snapped the ball. Everything else—the last minute or so—was immaterial. The Ravens’ punter danced around for eight seconds before sidestepping out of the endzone for a safety, effectively extinguishing any remaining drama in the most bizarre way possible. (Congratulations to everyone who bet on a safety occurring in the game, at at least fifty-to-one odds!) In the end, the game was very close, occasionally thrilling, and incredibly anticlimactic. It was, all things considered, a great and weird Super Bowl and I’m sad it’s over. But I doubt I’ll remember it.
Everything is softly hushed. The talking heads and media types have quietly left New Orleans. The shine of those blockbuster commercials has already dimmed. I can’t remember a time when some version of that Bar Refaeli commercial wasn’t in my life—though that may just be good advertising. No more SportsCenters broadcast live from Bourbon Street, no more poems by Rick Reilly. No more Harbowl™ and no more (ever) (as a football player) (I’m pretty sure) Ray Lewis. Four days later and the vapor trails of media coverage—the final blog posts about Psy’s pistachio nuts commercial and Joe Flacco’s performance—are already nearly gone. I have a half-eaten Costco-sized bag of baby carrots molding in my fridge. That deflated bag of carrots isn’t the best metaphor for the Super Bowl, but it will have to do. Because with the Super Bowl, any metaphor is in play. You wait two weeks—all year, really—in anticipation of the game, you enjoy it while you watch it, and then you wonder what the hell all the fuss was about. It all ended so quickly and, despite the close final score, so anticlimactically. The actual details and minutiae of the game vapor into cliché, one-dimensional cartoons speedily forgotten. All we’re left with are some residual ads for Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Champion commemorative swag, and some inedible baby carrots.
But in the moment, on Sunday afternoon PST, watching Colin Kaepernick drive toward the end zone, those carrots tasted awesome.
Sam Freilich lives in L.A.