Almost a year after retreating inside from a deadly virus whose spread has only gotten monumentally worse since, I turned on the Super Bowl. It might be weird to see a sports event as typically hyperbolic as the Super Bowl brought down to a simmer Amid Pandemic, I thought, but at least I’d have some new shade of background noise on as I put together my 80th puzzle of quarantine.
The reality of the event was almost stranger than the strangeness I’d expected. Instead of making obvious changes to reflect the fact that the entire country is in some version of lockdown while half a million people have died, the Super Bowl seemed to unfold basically the same as it would have in any other year. The stands of Raymond James Stadium appeared to be packed, thanks to a combination of cardboard cutouts and the more than 20,000(!) people who had traveled there to attend. While 7500 were reportedly vaccinated healthcare workers and masks were required, the visual of a crowded stadium was nonetheless strikingly normal in a year that’s anything but.
Then, when it came time for the halftime performance, The Weeknd put on an elaborate, uninhibited show that automatically became the largest scale concert to be held in a year. As an audience waved lights up at the stage from the field, I briefly forgot how bizarre it was to see a real live concert happening now, as millions are scrambling to get life-saving vaccines. Even the commercials in between the game itself largely ignored the pandemic —a deliberate choice, as several advertising executives told Variety.
On the one hand, I can’t blame companies for not wanting to indulge more of the self-serious commercials about banding together and getting through hard times that have flooded TV in recent months. There are only so many times we can play the game of guessing which sentimental togetherness message belongs to whichever disingenuous corporate behemoth without losing our minds. But it was undeniably disorienting to watch ads featuring, for instance, interactions like Gwen Stefani and Adam Levine FaceTiming each other from inside restaurants without a mask or care in sight, waited on by smiling servers who didn’t have to worry about bringing death home from the brunch rush. From where I and so many others are sitting — i.e. on our couches at home, where we’ve been for months on end — that commercial felt almost as fantastical as the one for SpaceX’s all-civilian space mission. In what world do either scenarios truly exist? Not ours, that’s for sure.
So as it turned out, the most jarring thing about the Super Bowl happening in a year marred by an unrelenting virus was that the Super Bowl didn’t look at all like it was happening during a year marred by an unrelenting virus. After months of watching European soccer — which features fake crowd noise and has only sporadically allowed smaller crowds when local lockdowns permit — it was a genuine shock to switch on a sporting event in America, a country that does not have and never had a handle on the pandemic, and watch it march on relatively unchanged. Unlike concerts, awards shows, and even President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the significant forces behind the Super Bowl saw no need to adjust to the extraordinary times. Instead, they followed the government’s lead and did everything they could to make life look as “normal” as possible, no matter what. In that respect, at least, there’s something perfectly, metaphorically fitting about the fact that the Super Bowl looked about the same as always — until you zoomed in to see the truer picture of people shivering in masks.
On a basic human level, I get the instinct to reject realism for trying to make things seem alright. It’s always nice to get a reprieve from our daily dread, and being able to turn on something, anything, without thinking about sickness, loss or Zoom would be great. And yet watching the Super Bowl, I couldn’t think of anything but the devastating virus that the broadcast was otherwise determined to ignore. Seeing a stadium teeming with people wasn’t a relief, but a window into some uncanny mirrored valley where everything looks the same as it was before, except somehow still hopelessly backwards. It didn’t feel like an escape; it felt like waking up to yet another day of lockdown while having to forge ahead like everything is okay. But nothing’s the same, it’s not okay, and pretending otherwise isn’t going to be what gets us through it.