When the NFL dubbed its championship game the Super Bowl and gilded it with Roman numerals, it was an invitation for people to judge every aspect of what has become a national celebration of sports, entertainment, food and commerce.
So as we await the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, let’s take stock of some of the best and worst things in Super Bowl history — some on the field, some near it, in our homes or perhaps just on TV.
Best national anthem
With America embroiled in the Gulf War, Whitney Houston blew everyone away at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Fla., 30 years ago.
Yes, she sang while a prerecorded version was heard, and that provoked a mini-controversy. But it’s worth noting the NFL, unhappy with the recording, tried and failed to have Houston’s Marvin Gaye-inspired track remade.
The recording, put out to benefit soldiers and their families, sold 750,000 copies in the first eight days of its release and was again a hit when rereleased after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Worst national anthem
Wonder why the NFL had Houston prerecord her anthem? Because things go wrong.
Christina Aguilera got the hard part down. She hit the notes, a cappella no less. But the words? “O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming” came out “what so proudly we watched, at the twilight’s last reaming.”
Best Super Bowl food
Chips and salsa, queso optional. Simple but always effective.
Worst Super Bowl food
Ribs. Delicious, yes, but so messy.
Best halftime show
You know you’re seeing something special when a torrential rainstorm accentuates the performance, rather than ruin it.
Prince tore through not just some of his hits but covers of songs such as “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Best of You” in a downpour at the Chicago Bears-Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl XLI 14 years ago in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Long before he closed out with a searing rendition of “Purple Rain,” you knew you were seeing a set for the ages.
Worst halftime show
It’s tempting to pick Up With People’s determinedly bland “Salute to Motown” in Detroit in 1982, which wasn’t much of a salute to anything. But for over-the-top absurdity, the choice is “Be Bop Bamboozled,” 1989's Super Bowl XXIII halftime show in Miami Gardens.
The 3D special effects, dancers and cover music were just mediocre. But center the thing around someone named Elvis Presto, a Presley impersonator decked out in gold lame doing magic tricks, and you have something monumentally gaudy and stupid.
At its conclusion, Bob Costas dutifully called it the “most wonderfully understated 12 minutes in television.” We knew what he was really trying to say.
Best Super Bowl pizza topping
Cheese. It’s already a day of excess, no need to get fancy.
Worst Super Bowl pizza topping
Anchovies. One person might like them. Might. Everyone else has to pick them off.
Best Super Bowl ad
The Super Bowl ad that got people thinking about Super Bowl ads as a genre unto itself is Apple’s “1984,” a Ridley Scott-directed commercial that played off Orwellian imagery to position the upstart tech company as the rival challenging staid and pervasive IBM.
The Super Bowl XVIII spot aired two days before Apple released Macintosh, which it promised would show “why 1984 won’t be like ’1984.’ ” Apple never paid to run the spot again, and we’re still talking about it. These things don’t get better than that.
Worst Super Bowl ad
There have been many missteps over the years, including flying gerbils and flying babies. Who can forget the suicidal GM robot?
Nationwide depicted a dead kid to scare viewers into safety precautions. Holiday Inn insulted the LGBTQ community, comparing its revamped rooms to a transgendered alumna at a class reunion. A Groupon ad struck many as making light of oppressed Tibetans. Just for Feet used slave-trade imagery, forcing sneakers on a barefoot Kenyan runner.
All were dreadful, all offensive. But because we have to choose one, we’ll go with Salesgenie and its cheap-looking, ill-considered Super Bowl XLII ad featuring cartoon pandas speaking in the sort of comic Chinese voices that went out with Andy Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Curiously, the ad’s so-called panda psychic spoke without affectation.)
Supergenie might as well have taken the money it cost to air a Super Bowl commercial and put it into a shredder.
Best Super Bowl moment
The Bears’ Devin Hester returning the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI.
Worst Super Bowl moment
The partial power outage at New Orleans’ Superdome delayed the second half of Super Bowl XLVII for more than a half-hour.
Best Super Bowl MVP
Quarterback Tom Brady, MVP of Super Bowl LI, led the New England Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit midway through the third quarter to send the game into overtime and ultimately a 34-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Brady was 43-for-62 passing for 466 yards and two touchdowns, but it almost doesn’t matter how he did it. It just matters that he did.
Worst Super Bowl MVP
Sure, the Oakland Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff was named Super Bowl XI MVP with a mere four catches for 79 yards and no touchdowns, but at least he set up scoring plays. The more puzzling choice was Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley, who was MVP in their 16-13 Super Bowl V loss to the Baltimore Colts.
That’s l-o-s-s — loss. Howley and the Cowboys might have lost by more if not for his two interceptions, including one in the end zone, but it’s almost as if the MVP vote were taken before the Colts’ Jim O’Brien nailed the go-ahead 32-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining.
Best Super Bowl
If you’re a Bears fan, we know your answer, but their Super Bowl XX victory over the Patriots wasn’t much of a game. New England just was a poor match for Mike Ditka’s shuffling crew.
In retrospect, neither were the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, but the Patriots spotted them a 21-0 lead and trailed 28-3 midway through the second quarter before mounting a remarkable comeback. Then the Pats won it in overtime. You can say the Falcons lost it, but it’s unforgettable just the same.
Worst Super Bowl
There have been routs and plenty of matchups that fizzled. The Colts and Cowboys played a tight game in Super Bowl V that was the product of a special kind of terrible from both teams. They went down to the wire, but the two combined for 11 turnovers and 14 penalties. Neither completed half their passes. It was ugly, with the accent on “ugh.”
Best post-Super Bowl TV show
Some of the most popular shows in television history have been given the post-Super Bowl time slot, including “Friends,” “Survivor,” “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “All in the Family.”
It has been used to boost new shows, such as “The A-Team,” “Undercover Boss” and the critically acclaimed “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But arguably no show to follow the Super Bowl was more of a revelation than the pilot of ABC’s nostalgic family series “The Wonder Years,” which made its debut after Super Bowl XXII in 1988.
A sweet, smart show starring Fred Savage — and narrated by Daniel Stern — this future classic about a kid growing up in the suburbs in the Vietnam War era became a template for so many shows today. And ABC just ordered a possible reboot centered on a Black family with Savage directing the pilot.
Worst post-Super Bowl TV show
There are a lot of possibilities here too, including the 1985 Aaron Spelling series debut of “MacGruder and Loud” about secretly married police officers, but the absolute worst was the 1979 NBC college comedy “Brothers and Sisters,” which premiered after Super Bowl XIII.
This effort — and we do mean effort — starred Chris Lemmon, William Windom and Mary Crosby. It was one of three frat-boy series to debut in the space of three weeks. All were inspired by the 1978 hit movie comedy “Animal House.” None made it past April.
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