The Oscars are boring — and there's no way to save them
With 24 awards to parcel out in three-plus hours, the Academy Awards should feel rushed — but as anyone who actually stuck with last night's telecast can attest, a brisk pace wasn't exactly the problem. Last night's 87th annual Academy Awards ceremony was one of the dullest in recent memory, packed with dead-end gags, interminable musical numbers, and a surprisingly flat performance from host Neil Patrick Harris. Once again, the Oscars failed to deliver a show that anyone beyond Hollywood diehards should bother watching — and if that surprises you, you haven't been paying attention.
There are some factors that can play a modest role in livening up an Oscar telecast. Producers, who dictate the structure and flow of the ceremony, play the largest role in shaping the overall flow of the evening. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced last night's ceremony (and the previous two), are notable mainly for their annoying insistence in shoehorning tributes to Hollywood musicals into an already bloated ceremony. Last night, it was Lady Gaga belting out a medley of songs from The Sound of Music — a show-stopping performance in every sense, its relative quality offset by its poor timing, as the clock ticked toward midnight on the East Coast with seven major awards left to present.
The second influencer is the host, who serves as the public face of the Oscar telecast and sets the tone for the evening. Neil Patrick Harris, who had already hosted pretty much everything except the Oscars, seemed like an ideal choice. But after a strong opening number, Harris was failed by some seriously hacky joke writing. (Smirking about it didn't do him any favors either.) And the naked desperation for a spontaneous, viral moment to rival Ellen's famed Oscar selfie led to the night's most dismal moments — particularly a bit in which Harris wandered the aisles, saying hello to random seat-fillers with no apparent plan for the conversation to follow.
The last (and arguably most important) factor is entirely outside the control of the producers or the host: the quality and popularity of the movies nominated. Some years, you get a mainstream Best Picture frontrunner like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; some years, you get an indie favorite like Million Dollar Baby or The Hurt Locker or Birdman, which many home viewers haven't seen. One of last night's central bits riffed on both Birdman and Whiplash — two movies that grossed under $50 million combined. That's less than one-sixth of the gross earned by also-ran American Sniper — which, as Neil Patrick Harris noted, has earned more alone than the other seven nominees earned combined. That's a lot of assumed cultural knowledge just to make the punchline of a joke land.
In theory, the platonic ideal of the Oscar ceremony would come down to three factors: a well-planned production, a perfectly chosen host, and a popular, critically beloved Best Picture winner. But even under those incredibly unlikely circumstances, the Oscar ceremony would merely be a very good version of a very draggy, very compromised show.
The truth of the matter is that a really great Oscar telecast is functionally impossible. There are too many competing interests at play. There's no way to make an insular, self-congratulatory evening for a small subset of Hollywood into something that can entertain millions and millions of viewers across the country. It's a big, unwieldy ship; the best the crew can do is hope not to drown.
The 87th annual Academy Awards are over, but watch: The cycle you're seeing now will repeat itself verbatim next year. Vocal fans of a particular movie — like, say, Selma or American Sniper — will fume at its failure to win Best Picture. Film nerds like me will rail at the decision to sequester moments that actually deal with Hollywood history, like the Lifetime Achievement Awards, to a separate ceremony, depriving some of the industry's greatest figures of widespread public recognition in favor of gags and musical numbers. The Academy will fret, desperately, over the ongoing (and losing) battle to attract younger viewers. No one will be wholly satisfied. And all of us will continue to complain that the Oscars aren't what we want them to be, secure in the knowledge that they'll never actually get there.