As far as I know we don’t yet have the technology or government program that allows us to determine the secret motivations of television viewers. So there’s no way of knowing what people actually wanted to see if they watched Nik Wallenda walk across a gigantic canyon near the Grand Canyon on Sunday night. How many tuned in because they’re avid fans of his? How many had never heard of him but stumbled upon the show? How many watched his Niagara Falls walk and wanted to see him do it again, this time over dry land and without a harness? How many watched to see if he’d plummet?
Wallenda fascinates me, much more than other daredevils and stunt artists. Compared to Wallenda, David Blaine looks like a juggler at a summer camp talent show. Even Felix Baumgartner’s incredible free fall from space didn’t interest me as much as Wallenda’s stroll, perhaps because we could see Wallenda’s face and the danger seemed more in our face. Millions have been to the Grand Canyon. We’ve stared down and everyone has wondered…what if I’d fall?
There he was, high in the air, wearing shoes, his Discovery T-shirt and blue jeans. Maybe I can relate to Wallenda’s stunt more, not because there’s anyway I could possibly walk a foot while three feet up in the air but because the fear of what he has to overcome during these stunts is much closer to my heart. Heights, yes. But more the falling from those heights. We went to the circus when I was 10 and the trapeze artists thrilled and terrified. I was convinced they’d fall and even though they must have surely had a net, I was sure they’d die. Why were they up there? Someone stop them! I expect things to fall or fly off. At Janesville’s Hay Daze I never went on the Hurricane ride because I always expected one of the little cars to come loose and fly into the bowling alley or the house of my great-aunt Ruth — not because I doubted the fine craftsmanship of our carnies but simply because I didn’t understand the physics and had an active imagination.
So I like that Wallenda overcomes so much that normal people fear and turns them into spectacles. It’s not simply about the awesome physical achievement; it’s about overcoming the mental fears. That might even overshadow the physical part of it — again, the guy walked across the Grand Canyon (forget the technical part or the dispute with the Parks department, etc. Seriously).
The showbiz aspect of it also might have overshadowed the physical part, at least until he actually took that first small step. The pregame felt like an NFL studio show but instead of having Michael Strahan and Terry Bradshaw laughing at each other’s nonjokes, we had Willie Geist and Natalie Morales talking to his dad, mom and wife. The only thing missing? An insider segment with Adam Schefter telling us there’s tension between Wallenda and the guy handling the tension of the cable, and a segment where all the experts predict whether he lived or died. We did learn a paramedic was at the bottom of the canyon, if needed.
Thankfully we never needed answers to many questions: With the show on a 10-second delay, what exactly would we have seen if he fell? Would the cameras have cut to his family? Would the cameras show the reaction of the crowd watching on the big screen, the same way we saw the reaction of people watching the Challenger? Who would narrate the essay — something that reminds us about the fragility of life and the dreams of man — if the night ended with his body at the bottom of the canyon?
Even after the buildup, when Wallenda finally started the walk there was a moment where I thought wait, why are they letting him do this? But as he began the journey with his dad talking into his ear, offering encouragement and the occasional words of wisdom, I fully expected him to make it safely. The wide shots were the most impressive, providing a fuller look at just how small he looked and how large of an area he was navigating. He didn’t banter much, though he told his dad he didn’t want to speak to anyone else, meaning Geist and Morales. Understandable. You thought Popovich was surly during in-game interviews?
“Nik, how do you feel right now? Adjustments?”
He praised Jesus and asked for help with the wind, although with the ultimate showman you never quite know when he’s actually struggling and when he’s crouching down to add a bit of drama (which he’s done before, as Michael Kruse noted in a good piece over the weekend. It didn’t seem like he was acting yesterday but part of what makes him great is that you don’t know. He makes it look easy, maybe even comes off as nonchalant, but he is totally aware that death is a footstep away). Somewhere in a Midwestern suburb, a gymnastics mom watched Wallenda and said, “He thinks this is tough? Try walking on a balance beam in the Olympics in front of billions of people with gold on the line. That’s pressure.”
Wallenda had a plan if he stumbled — hold onto the cable and wait for a rescue — but it didn’t look like that was ever a possibility. He did a mini-sprint at the end and an angry sports columnist railed against these showboating high-wire artists. Why can’t they act like they’ve been there before?
After it ended viewers breathed again or cursed that they didn’t see bloodshed or wondered “what’s the point,” as if the awesomeness of human guts and ability needed a greater meaning.
The next question for Wallenda is what’s next? He reportedly wants to walk between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York, although the logistics seem impossible, as does the act itself. Of course those are just my thoughts, the thoughts of someone who lacks the imagination to see what Wallenda sees and can only imagine everything that could go wrong when he takes the first step.