Why does anybody watch the Oscars?

On the baffling popularity of the lamest event on television

An Oscar statue.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Mike Blake)

I wonder what it must be like to be one of those people who watches things.

Specifically things like the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the Emmys, the Video Music Awards, or any entertainment awards program. The tribe of adults who enjoy these glitzy marketing extravaganzas seem to have their own private language. "This Oscars isn't Jennifer Lawrence's moment. But really, it's always Jennifer Lawrence's moment." What in the world does this headline from The Washington Post mean? Who is Jennifer Lawrence, and why is it simultaneously not her moment and always her moment?

Year in and year out I am astonished by the number of people, especially people my age, who seem to enjoy award shows. The weirdest thing about these programs is not that they are popular despite being extremely lame but that they are popular despite being lame in a distinctly old-fashioned sense. The Oscars, with their dorky one liner-dispensing male hosts in tuxedos and variety show-style group musical numbers, are about as hip as The Ed Sullivan Show circa 1963. The fact that people who claim to enjoy hosting Academy Award watch parties do not also enjoy watching Mario Lanza, ventriloquists, chorus numbers performed by women in feather boas, and talking parrots trained by former vaudevillians seems wildly inconsistent to me.

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What can be the reason people tune in? Surely it has nothing to do with devotion to what the Academy pompously refers to as "motion picture arts and sciences." It would be difficult to think of an institution, including the box office itself, that has a worse track record of picking good or even watchable films than the annual Oscar for Best Picture. How many years has a film that could plausibly be called the year's best won or even been nominated? The Searchers, not only among the greatest films in American history but a cultural artifact that illustrates something fundamental about our national character that will be studied by historians as long as this country exists, was not up for an Oscar. The year it was eligible the Best Picture statue went to a musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days. Only three types of films win the top award every year: movies about Hollywood, very sappy message pictures, and bloated, expensive, endlessly hyped epics.

One commonly cited answer people give when asked why they bother watching the Oscars and other award shows is "I just like the outfits." This makes absolutely no sense either. There has never been a time when the average American of either sex put less thought or care into what they wear. At no time in our history has the quality of the average garment been lower than it is now or the political economy surrounding its manufacture more dodgy. Saying that you watch the Academy Awards because you "like" fashion makes, if you are dressed like 99 percent of the public, about as much sense as a morbidly obese man claiming that he watches the Olympics because he is fascinated by exercise. The emotional logic might check out, but it is certainly gruesome.

As far as I can tell, these award shows exist so that very rich people can feel good about themselves. As if it were not enough that talentless cretins get paid millions of dollars for standing in front of cameras, they get little gold statues too and the platitudes they utter while receiving them get to be nodded over by a significant portion of the sentient adult population. These people feel entitled not only to our money and our time but our adoration. They also insist upon being seen by the rest of us as indescribably woke. This mostly involves graciously allowing other rich but not quite so famous people to enter their homes in order to meet and give money to Hillary Clinton. Presumably no one of importance in Hollywood was unaware of Harvey Weinstein's character, but it didn't matter for decades until a small coterie decided to acknowledge the reality of sexual assault by very courageously wearing $100,000 black dresses at the Golden Globes.

One thing I want to know is whatever happened to snobbery. Surely there was a time not very long ago when intelligent young people skipped out not only on awards shows but on the Super Bowl, top 40 radio, and video games as a matter of course. How I long for the days when celebrity culture was considered trash by all right-thinking persons and teenagers aspired to Proust and free jazz rather than Beyoncé and woke comic book movies. All of those contemptuous instincts have been transferred from art to the world of brunch and IPAs. The future of being highbrow is not chain smoking in your turtleneck with your copy of Ulysses; it's eating duck nachos while you live-tweet The Bachelor.

At any rate I miss the old bohemianism and hope I'm not the only one.

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