Billy Crystal

February's Big Event Scorecard: The Grammys had Adele. The Super Bowl had Eli Manning. The Oscars, the last and least of these annual TV spectacles, had ... Cirque du Soleil? And endless pointless montages of movie stars gushing about how wonderful the movies are. And Billy Crystal recycling age-old shtick, including the "What are they thinking?" gag that had us squirming along with the celebs in their seats, making for a night that was (to borrow from a nominated title) Extremely Long and Incredibly Dull.

The Oscar telecast is such a curious paradox. Intended to be the starry climax of every awards season, the bloated show has become a painful chore to endure, with the host reduced to punching-bag status even when he or she gives it their all. (The moment presenter Chris Rock energetically took the stage, there was a collective surge of "Why isn't he hosting?" — until we remembered how that went back in 2005. This really is one of the most lose-lose of all industry gigs.)

Want more TV news and reviews? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

You can hardly blame Crystal in his ninth go-round for reprising the routines that once served him so well: inserting himself into parodied scenes from the nominated movies, capped by a peppy song and dance. Some of it worked — the hospital-bed kiss with George Clooney from The Descendants, the scatological crossover of The Help and Bridesmaids — but by the time Justin Bieber and Tom Cruise made random cameos, and Crystal was reduced to singing "Hanks is a memory" (referring to Tom Hanks' 9/11 film, sung to "Thanks for the Memory"), it came off as trying too hard in a year where, as the charming The Artist ultimately proved, less would have been more.

"Wow, I pulled a hamstring just watching that," Crystal quipped, cracking himself (and only himself) up after Cirque du Soleil's precious and pretentious high-flying acrobatics. "We're a pony away from being a bar mitzvah," he added — rimshot please? — before launching into a riff calling attention to how old the Oscars, and some of this year's nominees, were.

The entire night felt old and musty, and not just because a silent movie won best picture. Even one of the more ambitious bits, an amusing sketch about focus-group testing featuring Christopher Guest's wonderful repertory company, harked back to 1939 (and The Wizard of Oz) and felt weirdly irrelevant.

Technical glitches made this one of the worst-sounding live events in recent memory, and after a while, it was hard not to get nostalgic for the days of silent cinema. The show was so devoid of actual entertainment that bored wags began to follow instant Twitter accounts based on JLosNipple and AngiesRightLeg (nods to celebrity body parts creating a stir from the stage). In one of the funniest cutaways to the stupefied audience, nominee Nick Nolte was seen doing the world's most bored-to-death slow sideways clap.

And considering all the padding that kept the first major acting award from being announced until 45 minutes into the show (for The Help's Octavia Spencer), what a travesty for her to be played off during her emotional acceptance speech, babbling "I'm sorry." No, it's the Oscars who should be sorry, for stepping on a star's one shining moment in a night so starved for spontaneity.

Not that there aren't moments to remember: Emma Stone swanning onto the stage, acting super giddy to be a presenter and trying to pull Jonah Hill from the audience to dance; Christopher Plummer (at 82 the oldest winner ever) accepting his statue lovingly: "You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?"; Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community, and co-writer of The Descendants) aping Angelina Jolie's aggressively leg-revealing stance; Meryl Streep, in one of the night's few surprises (though a third win, after nearly 30 years, was going to happen someday), suggesting with a delightful giggle, "I could hear half of America going, 'Oh no, why her? Again?' But whatever."

But whatever, indeed.

Don't you wish you'd watched The Walking Dead instead?

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!