Critic's Super Bowl Notebook: Game Was for Real, Fake-Outs in Ads and 'This Is Us' Scored
It's the fake-outs I'll remember most about Sunday's Super Bowl LII. (If you read the Roman numerals a certain way, it almost spells "lie.")
Following recent years' tradition, the game once again upstaged the advertising with a fast-moving, high-scoring, nail-biting competition between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles—it's always my favorite outcome when the underdog pulls off a win. The highlight of the game was Eagles quarterback Nick Foles executing a trick play on a fourth down and making the touchdown catch himself. A classic.
Likewise, just about the only ad I'd consider memorable was a surprise: a flurry of spots for, of all unassuming products, Tide detergent. Stranger Things' David Harbour cheekily spoofed all manner of traditional Super Bowl commercials—the car ad, the "hilarious" beer ad, the Old Spice sexy beach ad, a pharmaceutical ad, even teasing us with the appearance of a Clydesdale (which otherwise was MIA this year, shame on Budweiser). Everything, he quipped, was a Tide ad, in a running gag that was a pure and clever delight.
(Honorable mention to the Amazon ad, in which a fun assortment of celebrities pitched in when Alexa lost her voice, everyone from a seductive Rebel Wilson and playfully rambunctious Cardi B to a combative Gordon Ramsay and sinister Anthony Hopkins. It might have had even more impact if they hadn't already released it online, a detestable practice that blunts the fun of Super Bowl night.)
HBO threw a winning pass when they teased the show's return.
The next biggest buzz surrounded another jolting surprise: Netflix announcing that The Cloverfield Paradox, the latest film in that horror franchise, would premiere soon: as in (we were about to realize) immediately following the game. Genius guerilla marketing. Take that, This Is Us—although anyone who has the energy to sit through an entire movie after the long Super Bowl night is made of stronger stuff than I.
The Justin Timberlake halftime show was mostly forgettable, except for the guest appearance by a ghost Prince—another fake-out of sorts. Not a hologram as many had feared, but the posthumous duet featuring clips of Purple Rain projected on a giant screen raised almost as many hackles as Dodge RAM appropriating the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in an ad that generated instant backlash. Kudos, though, for the halftime long shot showing Minneapolis bathed in Prince's signature purple.
For fans of This Is Us, fake-outs and manipulative misdirection have been staples of the show since the pilot. Which is why I both sighed with relief and groaned when Best Dad Ever Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) survived the house fire in the harrowing opening scene, along with the dog and family photos he went back in to save (an adorably fatal error, that). I'm glad they chose to keep Jack's subsequent catastrophic cardiac arrest off camera, instead showing hospital staff frantically responding to the crisis in the background while wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore, doing some of her best work) was obliviously making phone calls and grabbing a candy bar.
We're still recovering from Jack's heartbreaking death.
The best fake-out was yet to come. Randall's (Sterling K. Brown) Super Bowl Sunday subplot led us to believe another foster child, an adorable young boy named Jordan, was destined to join the family. But after a heart-to-heart with insecure older daughter Tess (Eris Baker), in which Randall inherited the title of Best Dad Ever-The Next Generation, we discovered that little Jordan existed in a flash-forward future, and his social worker was actually a grown-up Tess, placing the child with foster parents just in time for Older Randall (our first glimpse) to arrive for the weekly dinner he had always promised her.
That's the sort of This Is Us moment that, if it doesn't make you gasp and cry a little and feel good about it afterward, should have you asking yourself why are you watching. (Kate coined a great phrase in her own subplot: "Going for the catharsis jugular." A This Is Us specialty.) Oh, and then back in real time, their actual former foster daughter Deja (Lyric Ross) appeared at the Pearson's door.
What a lovely way to end a satisfying night of event TV. Cloverfield Paradox, I'll get to you later.