Bonus Ball

I’m sure most of you are over The Super Bowl for another year (this really should be called ‘Watching TV after Americans’) but I’m far more interested in an aspect of the event that doesn’t change each year – although even for someone to whom ‘football’ means round balls and bad pies it was a pretty great game – which is the TV generated around it. The Super Bowl on TV seems never to start or end, making it the perfect metaphor for the medium. As it’s assumed that large portions of the nation are watching, which is no mean feat these days, The Super Bowl is a bat-signal for advertising. For the same reason, counter-programming decides to take one for the team, but those networks that try to take on The Super Bowl must do so in the most ruthless ways possible to even get noticed. This year, however, there were some added satirical bonuses.

I’m used to televised sporting events starting a few minutes later than advertised to sneak in a commercial break while everyone’s watching, but I was not prepared to be sitting on the couch at 3.30 still waiting for the game to begin. And for what? John Travolta’s Adele Dazi trying to break Bleedin’ Gums Murphy’s record for the longest rendition of ‘Star Spangled Banner’? The presentation of the NFL’s annual ‘didn’t rape or hit anyone’ award? Don’t we have a pre-show for this? The mechanics of modern television have manoeuvred themselves so that we are continually watching prelude. The Super Bowl goes one better and expects we will enjoy it. It’s moments like this which remind us that commercial television form is an integral part of the way that a game of American football is structured, rather than the British kind which is merely pricked around the edges by commercial interruption.

Commercials broadcast during The Super Bowl are notorious for being sexist, portentous and counter-intuitive. Half-time act Katy Perry clearly wanted to take some of the heat off the sexist commercials, but they were out in full force, not as well-disguised by nob gags as the advertisers clearly thought. Carl’s Jr. has even managed to turn gender discrimination into a branding mechanism for its Super Bowl ads. But this year they didn’t go unchallenged. Feminine health company Always ran a semantic deconstruction of the gender assumptions and discourses behind the phrase ‘Like a Girl’ while Saturday Night Live staged a fake Totino’s ad exposing the unbelievably narrow gender stereotypes and chauvinistic divisions of Super Bowl ads, particularly the archetypal representation of women as child-minded homemakers. Somewhere in the middle was Fiat’s ‘Viagra’ campaign which unironically presented pumped-up virility and machismo as a draw but also satirised male sexual prowess and the idealised feminine body.

Part of the fun of watching Super Bowl commercials is trying to figure out what product the pretentious pre-amble will eventually advertise (clue: anything combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is deodorant). But sometimes the logic of ad writers is beyond even those who dissect media images for a living. A ghost-child commercial is the perfect vehicle for a leukaemia or cancer charity, but it does nothing to ameliorate the ghoulish undertones of an insurance company. Another insurance company, Esurance, seems intent on using circular logic and specious reasoning similar to the Johnny Cochran O.J. glove defence to convince consumers of its superiority to established rival Geico, but as long as that involves Walter White as a drugstore pharmacist I don’t much mind. If you tire of the commercials, you can switch over to The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s re-imagining of The Super Bowl through the imagery of illegal competitive dog-fighting. For cute read irresponsible.

As with SNL, the most authentic example of Super Bowl television was the least genuine. Key & Peele have always satirized American sport and its coverage, but with their simulated Super Bowl pre-show staged as a real network broadcast, it was far more than a send-up. There was plenty to ridicule: the ill-fitting suits of the former-pro presenters, the passive-aggressive banter, the live-action footer trails of network sitcoms always starring ‘Alison Janney’, and of course the beyond-hyperreal graphics with overly phallic connotations. But the real-time flow and denouement in which the digital robot mascot achieves self-awareness and propels humanity into a state of oblivion identifies The Super Bowl and its live, ongoing broadcast with a dystopian terror effect that reminded me of another piece of faked factual horror television, the one-off BBC drama Ghostwatch. There is something inherently wrong and otherworldly about TV’s broadcast of The Super Bowl, the same something as television itself.

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