Tom Shales on TV: Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Vancouver

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

If your Canadian consciousness isn't elevated by now, you must not have seen the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver on NBC Friday night. Once again, as it has at various intervals, Canada seems a little bit closer than usual, even for a nation we border.

Surmounting what seemed like a mounting array of unfortunate omens -- including the death of a luger during a practice run and a conspicuous absence of the snow necessary for outdoor events -- the Winter Games got off to a splendiferous start with Opening Ceremonies that deftly navigated the line between artsy-smartsy and rabble-rousing. Canadian enterprise and imagination created images that rivaled those of "Avatar," only without the pontificating.

Viewers unfortunately had to wait a long, long time for the glorious indoor snowfall, the blizzard of giant red maple leaves and the ditty rendered by a fiddler who descended from the vicinity of the moon. NBC signed on at 7:30 p.m., but it wasn't really until 10:20 or so that the festivities began in earnest.

There were 90 minutes of network preliminaries first, though these were hardly without distinction. Tom Brokaw, the ghost of newscasts past, dropped by looking drowsy, but he narrated a splendid featurette on our friendly neighbors to the North, made memorably and achingly beautiful by stunning HD photography of mountains, lakes, hills, valleys, ice, snow and, of course, Niagara Falls.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams and such first-string sportscasters as Dan Patrick, Al Michaels, Mary Carillo and the star of the show, Bob Costas (with an assist from Matt Lauer of "Today"), performed at their peaks -- especially perhaps Carillo who, in a taped piece, was seen getting a turn at carrying the Olympic torch.

In the first half-hour, NBC showed commendable candor in reporting on the death of the 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, showing taped footage of the tragedy (at least three times, but that's standard for TV now -- in fact, NBC showed restraint) and confronting the fact that the accident had certainly dampened spirits as the Games were to get under way.

Later, somewhat awkwardly, NBC unveiled the considerably ballyhooed 2010 update of the old "We Are the World" video, this time for Haiti relief. At least it added to the overall sense of event -- as did the start, at 9 o'clock, of the Opening Ceremonies, with a skier sloshing down a long man-made slope in the stadium, right through the middle "O" in the five rings that make up the Olympic logo, and onto the floor of the humongously gigantic venue where the ceremonies took place.

At first, it looked as though entertainment would take over for the rest of the evening, albeit with a muted sort of sizzle. The first half-hour or so was an exercise in Cultural Correctness, with representatives of Canada's "indigenous peoples" taking the giant stage to dance about and hunker down. At such moments, one might be inclined to recall one of the late Jack Paar's favorite quotations: "Try everything once -- with the exceptions of incest and folk dancing." It did get a trifle dull after about five minutes.

Then came the Parade of Nations, a climax at Summer Games but, as Costas and Lauer explained, instead part of the curtain-raising at the Winter Games -- the idea being that if you trot the athletes out at the beginning, they can sit and watch the spectacle with everybody else. It was a spectacle worth waiting for, full of amazing illusions and great glowing splashes of light and color -- something that kids especially might enjoy, though it started too late for many younger ones to see.

Whales were projected onto the stadium floor, totem poles seemed to rise form out of it and up to the rafters -- as did a giant sparkling bear that turned out to be an elegant balloon. And that was only for openers. All of it was rendered splendid by NBC's HD cameras and enhanced by discreet commentary from the anchors.

The Winter Games conquered their omens, at least for now, and were off to an awe-inspiring start.

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