Tuned In

The Morning After: Oscar's Old Song and Dance

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A picture is worth a Slumdog Million words. / ABC

A picture is worth a Slumdog Million words. / ABC

We’ve made it through another Academy Awards, and if you missed last night’s liveblog, this morning you can relive them backwards in time, Benjamin Button-style, by starting at the top and reading to the bottom. (And you can read Richard Corliss’ take on the awards themselves, as well as Kate Betts’ write-up of Oscar fashions.)

The Oscars decided to change things up a bit this year, and the change they went for was… interesting. In a nutshell: if the economy’s going back to the 1930s, then let’s take Hollywood with it! Well, I exaggerate, a little. But the Academy went musical-style, hiring the creative honchos of Chicago and a Broadway-friendly Hugh Jackman and opening with a big band playing on a vaguely Art Deco set. Jackman proferred a couple quick jokes at the outset, but quickly showed that he was there to sing! sing! sing!

One big-picture thought I had during the liveblog is that the Oscars, like any old institution facing shrinkage in its audience—the newspaper business, the evening news, the current Republican party, etc.—is at an inflection point and faces a choice. It can try to draw in a whole new group of followers. Or it can decide to cater to the people who already like it, accept that its audience is what it is, and try to ride that as long as it can. 

The Oscars largely made the latter choice, with aesthetics that were mainly retro and a presentation that was mostly inward-directed—toward the actors and creatives in the room—rather than outward toward the audience.

That’s not to say it was all bad. I liked much of Jackman’s opening musical number. (As opposed to his atrocious later medley with Beyonce, Zac Efron et al., which made the case that “The musical is back!” with almost exclusively old tunes, and managed neither to convincingly update the old standards nor give them a good old-fashioned revival.) I liked the cheeky references to the fact that most of the home audience had probably never seen acclaimed nominees like The Reader. And some comic bits, like the Pineapple Express takeoff, were inspired.

But the broadcast overall had problems of pacing. The experiment of having five former winners introduce the major acting nominees made sense in theory, but the practice—five times the prompter-read tongue-baths, delivered from a dark stage by a council-of-the-gods-like assemblage—slowed things to a crawl. 

And the retro approach itself? During the liveblog, Richard Corliss made the excellent point that retro is the foundation of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, two of TV’s biggest hits (the latter of which ABC flogged relentlessly during the commercial breaks). I can’t argue with that. But while, say, Idol gets cross-generational appeal by letting middle-aged and retired folks watch energetic young people forced to pay tribute to the music of yesteryear, it is ultimately about creating new pop stars, singing new pop music. It may have a Motown night, but it’s not trying to pretend that “Motown is back!” 

But the real answer may be that American Idol just better understands its nature as a TV show. It has a narrative (the weekly competition). It has unpredictability (Paula), a villain (Simon) and—whatever you say about Ryan Seacrest—a host to whom live TV is like breathing air. 

Doing a reasonably entertaining Oscars isn’t rocket science. It’s not even paper airplane science. But it requires getting movie people to accept that they are putting on a TV show. Which means: get a TV person to host it, like Steve Martin—a movie guy, yes, but one who knows his way around a live-TV set, who has hosted the Oscars successfully before and who made me wish he and Tina Fey were co-hosting last night.

Hugh Jackman wasn’t bad. He’s charming and game and I bet he absolutely killed in the room. But he didn’t really project beyond the room, nor did he much seem to be trying to. The show wasn’t bad, exactly; it was boring, though, which is probably worse. 

Every year, critics like me do post-mortems of the Oscars, and every year there are all sorts of wild notions of how to totally remake the broadcast. But look: it’s the Oscars. It’s an awards show, it’s self-congratulatory by nature and it has to appeal to a wide audience. I don’t expect it to be some hip, edgy performance piece. Nor do I want the Academy to change its voting to generate more ratings-friendly nominees. Just give it a TV host, let some funny people be funny, and make plenty of room for the non-TV people—i.e., the winners—to create the unscripted moments. Just put on a TV show, Oscar, and I’ll be satisfied. 

Anyhow, I hear the orchestra playing me off. Your thoughts on the show—or Jimmy Kimmel after, or Barbara Walters and Tim Gunn before—are welcome. Don’t forget to thank your agent.