Critic’s Notebook: Super Bowl 50 More Like “Stupor” Bowl—Except for the Music

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos
super bowl 50, denver broncos, touchdown

I spent much of Super Bowl Sunday in mourning: not because I had much interest in who would win or lose what turned out to be an uncommonly thrill-free game, but because midway through the exceedingly long and bumpy night, CBS decided to use one of its promo spots to announce the end in May of network TV’s very best drama: The Good Wife.

super bowl, lady gaga

Lady Gaga

I’m actually at peace with this. When the show’s gifted creators, Robert and Michelle King, announced a while back that they would leave after the current seventh season, it seemed the right time to plan a dignified exit strategy. Nonetheless, this bombshell was a distraction, though not entirely unwelcome, as it did help take my mind off of what a dreary disappointment so much of the rest of the night had become, from the sluggish game itself to the mostly forgettable ads and even some of the post-game entertainment. (Although if you stayed up really late with James Corden, you were in for a treat.)

The only time this Super Bowl Sunday truly came alive was when it felt more like an outdoor Grammys, starting with Lady Gaga’s rapturous rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Resplendent in red, from eye makeup to glittery pantsuit, Gaga belted the National Anthem with soaring passion and precision, worthy of a 50th-anniversary milestone.

half time show, super bowl 50, coldplay, beyonce

Beyonce and Bruno Mars

It would have been the musical highlight of the night if not for Beyoncé’s ferocious and breathtaking “Formation,” upstaging muddled halftime headliner Coldplay, whose candy-colored flower-power opening set was itself eclipsed by a dynamic Bruno Mars before Queen Bey’s stunning entrance on the playing field. I guess it’s a good thing for a halftime show to build and build, improving with each act. But Beyoncé was so clearly the night’s MVP that when all three performers came together for a climactic chorus of “Uptown Funk,” the guys felt like afterthoughts.

And isn’t it about time for all of us to abandon the fiction that Super Bowl advertising is something special anymore? (Outside of the staggering $5 million cost per 30-second ad.) With a few exceptions, this year’s crop suffered from creative constipation—in one unfortunate case, quite literally, as a man suffering from opioid constipation looked on longingly at a dog relieving himself at the curb. Irritable bowel syndrome was later illustrated with an animated intestine.

Most of the noisy ads are leaked ahead of time anyway, and while I tried to shield myself from most of them in advance, so I’d have something new to chew on Sunday, there was precious little that stood out, except in a negative way. I’m afraid I’ll have nightmares for weeks about the CGI monstrosity known as “Puppy Monkey Baby,” a mutant animal-human hybrid that looked as if Ally McBeal‘s Dancing Baby had stumbled into a new season of American Horror Story. Shilling an appalling new Mountain Dew concoction, it easily won this year’s “Are They High?” award.

I did get a kick out of the wiener dogs in hot dog buns running toward the Heinz ketchup and mustard—it helps that I grew up with a dachshund—and the sheep bleating to Queen were keepers. And who doesn’t love Helen Mirren (that “notoriously frank and uncensored British lady”), especially when she’s chiding anyone who might drink and drive as “a short-sighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution, a Darwin Award-deserving selfish coward.” And a “pillock” to boot.

Animals generally fared better than babies this year. In one ad, a tempting bag of Doritos prompts an unborn baby to leap from the womb during an ultrasound—a sight still somehow less creepy than those Children of the Damned groupings of “Super Bowl Babies” conceived by fans of winning teams. This was the NFL’s ways of promoting “Football Is Family.” Maybe the Addams Family.

As my colleague Michael Schneider tweeted, “Maybe these 30-second Super Bowl spots have become SO expensive that advertisers have no money left over for creative.”

Peyton Manning, Super Bowl 50

Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning (18) holds up the trophy after winning the NFL Super Bowl 50

Can’t fathom what excuse Stephen Colbert’s Late Show could possibly have to rationalize its lackluster live post-game show, blowing a tremendous opportunity for exposure despite the fact that it didn’t start until 10:53 pm/ET. Outside of a cute opening gag in which the host passed a football to troops in Afghanistan, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station and President Obama in the White House, the show was oddly static, talky and sadly ordinary, as if going live had somehow stifled its ambitions. I’ve grown quite fond of Colbert’s show lately, especially as the political campaigns have fired up, and Saturday’s GOP debate should have given him plenty of fodder. (It might have been funny if his guests had botched their entrances the way Ben Carson and Donald Trump did in New Hampshire. But it’s like the whole thing never happened.)

The show leaned too heavily on guests over comedy, and even Tina Fey was subdued, appearing with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot co-star Margot Robbie only to be interrupted by an awkwardly scheduled satellite chat with Broncos MVP Von Miller. Will Ferrell tried to salvage things in costume as a mock animal expert, but his silly shtick felt awfully random for such a big night, and a taped bit with Key & Peele mocking end-zone celebrations was more on-the-nose than hilarious. Not the best timing for Colbert to have an off night.

In sharp and splendid contrast, James Corden’s Late Late Show (which came on after the local news, virtually in the same time period it normally airs) was an explosion of jubilant, Emmy-worthy creative energy. The Super Bowl jokes were tighter—including a nod to the hot referee (“I mean, how tight was his shirt?”)—and there was a party vibe extending to the parking lot, where Panthers fans were subjected to comic abuse. And when Corden cut to the stadium, it was to chat with his adorable mom and dad, whose rapport with players on the field was charmingly spontaneous.

Everything clicked: a parody of 1992’s iconic Cindy Crawford Super Bowl ad for Pepsi, with Corden entering the shot in a sweaty undershirt; a medley of movie scenes (a Late Late Show staple) from sports films, with Zac Efron, Adam Devine and Anna Kendrick playing along; an impromptu musical halftime sequence, featuring a Katy Perry-style “Left Shark;” and especially the exhilarating Carpool Karaoke with Elton John, complete with feather boas and wacky glasses.

“If I could tell my 12-year-old self I’d be doing this with my life, his head would explode,” gushed Cordon as his ride with Sir Elton came to a joyous end. Cordon’s boyish charm and enthusiasm buoyed his show from start to delightful finish, in which he recapped the entire Super Bowl night in a clever original song accompanied by Boyz II Men (fresh from last Sunday’s Grease Live!).

Much about Sunday’s Super Bowl may have like a chore, but at least it ended on a high.