Critic's Notebook: Despite COVID-19 Backdrop, a Boringly Normal Super Bowl

Tom Brady
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Even with a reduced in-person crowd — and a spectacular pre-game Amanda Gorman — the event felt mostly like business as usual, with an above-average halftime spectacle and disappointing ads that fans have come to expect.

What was supposed to be a Super Bowl unlike any other ended up the exact same way as seven of the past 19 Super Bowls — namely with Tom Brady holding the trophy and everybody else complaining about Tom Brady.

And don't get me wrong; I understand why people hate Tom Brady. Heck, I understand somewhere between 10 and 20 reasons why people hate Tom Brady. But if ever there was a year to be craving reliable continuity, it was this year.

Super Bowl LV was basically Super Bowl COVID, which may or may not make sense in Roman numeral terms. I was sick that day.

Everything was destined to be different this year: The game was being played in front of a sparse crowd, with what was supposed to be a toned-down halftime show and ad breaks that we were told would be missing some of the game's most beloved brands.

Beloved brands? First off, they're commercials. Under no circumstances are you supposed to lament who didn't spend millions of dollars on Super Bowl ad space. That's literally giving them commercial time in your brain for free. And who, exactly, felt like Pepsi and Budweiser really and truly sat this game out? Pepsi had its logo festooned everywhere and sponsored the halftime show. Nobody forgot Pepsi existed for these four hours. And just because Budweiser didn't bring out the Clydesdales this year didn't mean that Bud Light, or whichever seltzer Budweiser produces, didn't have ad time. Basically, everybody gave those companies two weeks of promotion for their restraint and nobility in the weeks leading up to the game, and then they were everywhere anyway.

Nothing to me is stupider than the several weeks of build-up to the Super Bowl commercials. They're not your friends! They're commercials. Sharing them for free in the weeks before the game both makes them less entertaining and pleasurable when they actually air and gives the brands more press for their underwhelming commercials. Sigh.

The commercials during Sunday's game were underwhelming. They always are. But they weren't boring in exactly the way we all expected them to be, with the universally mocked montages of first responders and a glib closing line like, "We know everything is different now, but when we got back to normal, Ruffles will still have ridges."

Sensing probably correctly that this wasn't really the time to depress the year's biggest TV audience, the geniuses at Madison Avenue kept things light and fuzzy — unless you happened to look beneath the surface. The pandemic was in the background of the various gig economy commercials, including ballyhooed spots for Uber Eats featuring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey — with Cardi-B to save parents the trouble of explaining Wayne's World or "local access TV" to kids — and DoorDash featuring various Sesame Street characters (violating every progressive, left-wing principle those Sesame Street characters were invented for). Economic hopefulness — because what's the alternative? — fueled all of the ads for mortgage companies and companies to help your start-up business.

It was the rare ad that actually addressed the trauma the country has gone through since we met for the last Super Bowl. Whichever the Budweiser seltzer is — all things are hard seltzers these days — built an ad around life giving the world lemons in 2020, pelting its characters with lemons from heaven and conveying a message I interpreted as, "Man, we all had a lot of time to stay at home drinking these past 10 months!"

Bruce Springsteen and Jeep tried urging America to reunite through the metaphor of a welcoming chapel in the center of the country. That it did so without even pretending to engage with the causes of our national schism isn't surprising. That anybody involved thought they were making a profound point surely is. It was embarrassing.

More embarrassing than the NFL taking out an advertisement boasting about its large donation to social justice causes? Well, that bit of silliness had Colin Kaepernick's name trending on Twitter, so it got the job done.

There were a few ads I liked. I don't know what Paralympian Jessica Long has to do with Toyota, but that commercial was a lovely celebration of her and her story and it made me cry, so forget whatever it was trying to advertise. There was a great ad in which a computer-generated Samuel L. Jackson got eaten by a shark and I'm here for Deep Blue Sea callbacks. Oh, and then there were the commercials for Paramount+, all of which came across as desperate and confusing, but in the Streaming Wars, who among us isn't desperate and confused?

Certainly many people were confused at many points during The Weeknd's reportedly self-financed halftime show. I kinda dug it, personally. It wasn't quite as fun and high-energy as what J-Lo and Shakira did last year or as righteously badass as what Beyonce did a couple years ago. But it was better than Adam Levine. Much better. Oh, and Adam Levine's commercial this year was awful, too. Keep him away from my Super Bowl, please!

No, The Weeknd's show had a couple decent songs and some superb, if weird, visuals. I liked the "Broadway Melody" (from Singin' in the Rain) urban backdrop populated by gospel singers with glowing red eyes. I loved when he and a group of real estate agents in red blazers pranced around the field in jockstrap masks (or "bandages," if you require accuracy). Plus, if you ever swallow poison and need to regurgitate, the thing where The Weeknd ran around the backstage area with a GoPro trying to avoid bumping into gold-plated, mirrored walls makes ipecac look like Pepsi. The Weeknd is a bit more in the "artist" category than the "entertainer" category, but if you're trying to make that coveted Uncut Gems audience happy, this did the job.

Maybe Amanda Gorman should have done the halftime show as well. After her rendition of "Chorus of the Captains" stole the pregame show, I'm prepared to let her host the Oscars, carry the U.S. flag if we ever have Olympics again, replace James Corden in CBS' late-night lineup and generally be a representative of all things America for the foreseeable future.

Honestly, everything that wasn't the game looked better because the game was so dismal. The game was billed as Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes and instead it was Todd Bowles (the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator) versus Patrick Mahomes. Bowles and his well-prepared defense won.

How was the game itself impacted by Our Very Strange Historical Moment? Barely at all. Because Florida doesn't care, there were 25,000 people allowed into the game and it was great that 7,500 of them were first-responders of various kinds, but maybe that should have been the whole crowd? Masks were fitfully spotted in the crowd and sporadically spotted on the players on the field, though a lot of the crowd had an excuse, since they were cardboard cutouts available for $100 apiece.

The reduced attendance meant reduced crowd reaction and blunted what otherwise might have been one of the game's true oddities: a Super Bowl home field advantage for Tampa Bay. Maybe it sounded like it was a partisan audience, or maybe that's just projection since only Tampa Bay fans had anything to cheer about for most of the game.

We'll see if Super Bowl LV ends up being the last and only Super Bowl COVID — if we're back to "normal" for next year's game in Los Angeles. We'll also see if we're any closer to knowing what Paramount+ is.