The NFL has instant replay and its tense, endless minutes as refs scrutinize ball bobbles under the hood. Basketball has its reviews of three-point lines and halftime buzzer beaters.
But for that fraught sports moment just between subjective act and conclusive judgment, there’s nothing quite like Winter Olympics figure skating and the period just before scores are announced. Partly that’s because, unlike most other sports, a figure skating performance is one quick jolt, just a few minutes of jumps and spins before we get to the judges’ verdict. But mostly it’s that that verdict means everything. The review process in other sports is often an important but not necessarily results-changing affair. In figure skating, the wait is for those results, which is why it can seem endless.
At the Sochi Games, it has seemed even more endless. During the team figure-skating competition Sunday night, you had enough time to contemplate every young U.S. figure skater in your lifetime and the lifetime of your ancestors as Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and the rest of the Americans waited for their tallies to come in.
Wednesday night at the pairs free skate, we were treated to downright luxurious waiting periods. Before Russia’s Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov heard their silver-medal scores, I had time to count every stripe on Klimov’s jacket and contemplate the cultural history of “The Addams Family” score that the pair used in its routine.
Even worse, these waits are increasingly uncomfortable. Unless a skate is perfect and we’re watching genuinely happy Russian teenagers and a possibly happy Vladimir Putin, we’re stuck with these skaters as they live through some of the most painful moments of their lives. Take Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who didn’t exactly have a red-letter day Wednesday. Despite winning four world championships, the pair had a shaky skate with plenty of on-ice spillage. And as we waited, we got to relive that -- literally, as NBC showed replays of their falls. In a daily wrap-up from Tivo of some of the more re-watched moments in primetime, the company described the scene this way:
“Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy anxiously await their scores after their disappointing performance in the free program portion of the pairs free skating finals. While they wait, a slo-mo version of their multiple falls, with commentary, foreshadows their third-place finish in the event.” Coming soon on primetime: relive your embarrassment at junior high school dances while upperclassmen shove you and girls say they like you as a friend.
I don’t know if the wait between performance and scoring has actually gotten longer. But with the cameras closer than ever -- and with many of us watching on large, high-definition TVs -- it certainly has become more squirmy.
The tightly formal nature of the sport, even as so much of the Winter Olympics has gotten looser, makes the problem worse. At the men’s halfpipe competition on Tuesday night, snowboarders could be seen horsing around, shrugging their shoulders and even tackling each other as they waited for scores. But with their ever-expanding coterie of coaches and their faces more frozen than anything Disney has ever put out, figure skaters seem really uncomfortable, and so do we.
There’s a corollary to all this in the entertainment world -- in the awards show cutaway, that moment just before a winner is announced when a director cuts to faces of all the nominees. The implicit promise of these shots is that they’re giving us honesty, but since the actors are well aware the camera is about to be shoved in their faces, it’s really just a kind of false honesty. The close-ups of performers as they’re waiting for results is supposed to make us feel like we’re seeing them as they’re really reacting, but we’re really just seeing their best stab at a reaction shot. As Golden Globe nominee Greta Gerwig told my colleague Amy Kaufman recently, when asked what she was going to do that moment her name was called, “I’ll probably think to myself, ‘Make some sort of serious, magnanimous, shy face.’ And it’s gonna look utterly goofy.’
I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. Scores take a minute to tabulate, and cutting to, say, a commercial would be shameless even by the milk-it-baby standards of these Olympics. But I suspect an overall more playful tone and a few less close-ups would help. NBC would call what it does now drama. The rest of us just call it awkward.
[Note: This is part of an ongoing series documenting the Sochi Olympics from a TV perspective. Every morning of the Games, we’ll look at a key moment from the previous day that NBC captured, elevated, honored, bungled or otherwise reported in a notable way, as only the most-televised event on the planet can be covered.]