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Opening ceremony proves Rio can throw a party; NBC, not so much

Rio proved it can throw a party on a budget.

As has been widely noted in the media, Brazil is in the middle of a severe economic recession, an unprecedented political crisis and a dangerous Zika outbreak. Add to that concerns about questionable construction, filthy water, crime and terrorism, and Friday's cash-strapped opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro had the potential to be a disaster.

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Creative director Fernando Meirelles (the filmmaker behind "City of God") seemed eager to downplay expectations, particularly following the spectacles staged in London in 2012 and Beijing in 2008.

But as Rio ably demonstrated in a vibrant ceremony at Maracana Stadium, only a fool would discount Brazil's ability to put on a show. What the ceremony lacked in terrifyingly synchronized drummers or parachuting monarchs, it made up for with joyful music and dancing, an earnest celebration of the country's multicultural heritage and an unapologetic call to action on climate change.

Also, there was Gisele.

An event that reportedly cost a mere fraction of what model Gisele Bundchen made last year provided plenty of entertainment value, if not the jaw-dropping mass spectacle of other recent ceremonies. As has become routine in the Olympics, any complaints about the ceremony could be leveled at NBC, which stuffed the tape-delayed broadcast with commercials and frequently eyeroll-inducing commentary from Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb.

There was a certain irony to the fact that viewers in the U.S. were unable to watch this celebration of global unity and togetherness at the same time as our friends around the world. In yet the latest decision to fuel the #NBCfail hashag, the network broadcast the ceremony on a one-hour delay on the East Coast. The West Coast was delayed by an additional three hours.

NBC claimed it was delaying the broadcast in order to provide additional "context" for viewers. The real reason, of course, was to draw as many eyeballs and run as many commercials (and women's gymnastics promos) as possible.

In an interview with opening ceremony executive producer Marco Balich this week, Reuters reported the Rio budget for the night's show was about half of the $42 million that London spent. Relying on relatively low-tech innovations, the ceremony traced Brazilian history through the ages, beginning with giant bugs crawling across the floor of the Amazon. The vast rainforest was re-created using glowing vine-like ropes, twisted in an array of geometric patterns by dancers dressed in indigenous garb.

The show also made use of Brazil's other great natural resource, Bundchen.

Early rumors indicated that Mrs. Tom Brady would appear in a staged mugging, but instead, the world's highest paid model strutted across the stadium floor as Daniel Jobim sang the country's unofficial national anthem, "The Girl From Ipanema." Frankly, Bundchen's ability to walk in stilettos while not tripping on her long, sequined dress was as awe-inducing as any pyrotechnic display. Later, Bundchen joined revelers in the stands and proved that if this modeling thing peters out, she's got a bright future as a bar mitzvah motivational dancer.

Six Californians competing in the Olynpics in badminton, soccer, skeet shooting, archery and water polo talk about their long journey to Rio.

Other sequences paid homage to the creativity of the favelas, the slums that dot the hillsides of Rio, and to aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was portrayed flying over the city. Performances by samba queen Elza Soares and 12-year-old MC Soffia were almost captivating enough to make you forget Vieira's unfortunate description of Brazilians as "cultural cannibals."

But the exuberance of the ceremony was balanced by serious themes. In what felt like an important milestone for an event that's usually a nationalistic pageant, Brazil addressed its complicated racial history in sequences about European colonization and the African slave trade, which Vieira awkwardly described as "immigration." And the first portion of the night ended with a speech about climate change (narrated in English by the extremely British Judi Dench, for some reason) accompanied by frightening graphics showing the effects of rising sea levels on coastal cities around the world.

The opening ceremony is a feat of endurance for the commentators, forced to find something useful (or at least inoffensive) to say for nearly five hours. The greatest challenge comes during the parade of athletes, when the commentators lean heavily on geographical fun facts, no doubt compiled by an exhausted team of NBC researchers, to liven up what is a procession of people walking for 2½ hours.

There was a regrettable tendency to either dwell on recent strife (Turkey, France), or to elide it in a way that bordered on tone-deaf (mocha originates from Yemen, it was cheerfully noted). There was, inevitably, a lame Djibouti pun. Each delegation was led by a cyclist who looked like a character out of a trippy children's cartoon and infused the event with a sense of whimsy.

Kotb, making her debut as an Olympics commentator, brought some fourth hour of "Today" loopiness to the proceedings, while Lauer cracked at least one groaner of a joke about Vieira's age (she's all of four years older than he is).

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The ceremony devolved into a strange fashion show, a parade of athletes dressed like Kenneth the Page on "30 Rock," with countries like Ghana and Colombia providing the occasional, extremely refreshing burst of color. Team USA once again wore aggressively preppy uniforms by Ralph Lauren, this time with logos large enough to be visible in space. The Cayman Islands delegation, outfitted in casual tropical dresses and straw hats, and host team Brazil, in a bright jungle print, looked much cooler by comparison.

Still, there were some genuinely moving moments, like the stirring applause for the first-ever Olympic team of refugees, which includes a Syrian swimmer who pulled a sinking boatful of people to safety.

Events like this one often create unexpected social media stars, and on Friday, Pita Nikolas Taufatofua — the shirtless, oiled-up flagbearer from Tonga — inspired a collective swoon online though not as many memes as one would hope, as the International Olympic Committee has banned news organizations from turning footage of the Games into GIFs or Vines.

"He's so shiny," cooed Kotb before correcting herself. "He's a great athlete. What's not to love?"

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The parade ended close to midnight, well past the point at which excitement may have curdled into irritation for many viewers.

Still, it was hard not to be moved by the requisite choir of adorable tots singing the Olympic anthem, or by 72-year-old former Kenyan marathoner Kip Keino, his Olympic credentials flapping around his neck as he ran to receive the first-ever Olympic Laurel Award. Here's where a little context actually might have been useful, but NBC commentators were strangely silent.

Then, finally, it was time to light the flame. True to the event's green spirit, the Olympic flame in Rio is a relatively modest one, notable not for its size but for the shimmering kinetic sculpture that accompanies it. The torch was lighted not by legendary soccer player, Pele, as many expected, but by the Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, whose shot at a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon was blown when he was attacked by a deranged spectator.

For a country facing a different kind of adversity, it was a fitting way to end the evening.

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