The trend of so-called "hate-watching" is hardly a new TV phenomenon. We've been doing it with the Oscar show for years: picking apart the fashions, groaning at the witless banter, griping as we drift through the seemingly endless midsection where no awards of major consequence are presented, and nearly always regarding the unlucky host as a piñata ripe for the bashing.
This year's tuneful but torturously overextended production (ending just past the three-and-a-half-hour mark) was much the same. With one major exception: The musical numbers were no joke, especially when mighty divas as legendary as Barbra Streisand and Shirley Bassey and as electrifyingly current as Adele and Jennifer Hudson took the stage. No Rob Lowe-Snow White fiascos this time.
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Even when the toothsome but surprisingly fangless host, Seth MacFarlane, lapsed into sophomoric Family Guy territory with a "We Saw Your Boobs" song-and-dance, it was couched within an overlong opening sequence that anticipated the negative reviews he would inevitably receive (with the byline belonging to our very own Stephen Battaglio) — as William Shatner's Captain Kirk appeared from the future to warn him to "keep it classy."
When he did just that, crooning "The Way You Look Tonight" as Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron did their best Fred-and-Ginger impersonation, and then performing a knowingly corny soft shoe with Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the truth about this year's Oscars became clear: It wanted to be the Tonys. Or at the very least a smashing revival of the variety-show format.
Which is why MacFarlane, a boyish satirist and would-be Sinatra who oozes sheepish insincerity with every smug aside, was such a peculiar choice as this year's host. We're realists enough to know Neil Patrick Harris can't host everything — besides, wrong network; and he hasn't actually conquered the movies yet (Harold and Kumar movies aside) — but in a year when the producers were so diva-crazy they even managed to arrange a surprise cameo from the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama to announce Best Picture, it's a pity they didn't just book the biggest male diva in the room: Hugh Jackman.
It was already obvious he wasn't going to beat Daniel Day-Lewis as best actor, so why not just let him enjoy himself and entertain the room, as we've seen him do before? (Taking part in the Les Miserables portion of the movie-musical salute wasn't nearly enough.) And being a loser himself, he could have spared us the misbegotten "Here's to the Losers" ditty with which a wobbly MacFarlane and pert Kristin Chenoweth closed the show — a wan echo of Harris' Tony-night final-curtain songs.
Instead, MacFarlane spent the night delivering a mildly off-color array of sexist jokes, gay jokes and anti-Semitic jokes (as his teddy-bear alter ego Ted, who sounds an awful lot like Family Guy's Peter Griffin), memorably bombing with a John Wilkes Booth joke. "150 years and it's still too soon, huh?" he cracked. Nope, just not that funny. Still, far from the "worst Oscar host ever," thanks to James Franco lowering that bar a few years back.
At least the music scored time and again, even when the sound was often muddled — a consequence of having the orchestra oddly located off site in the Capitol Records building? Dame Shirley Bassey, at 76, woke the show up and earned a standing ovation with her rousing, growling rendition of the Goldfinger theme during the otherwise under-imagined James Bond-at-50 tribute. While we might gripe about who was left off the "In Memoriam" list — Andy Griffith and Larry Hagman had notable film roles before becoming TV icons — Streisand's tremulous delivery of Marvin Hamlisch's The Way We Were title song was just about perfect. Jennifer Hudson also stopped the show with her Dreamgirls number, sandwiched between songs from Les Miserables and Chicago (celebrating its 10th-anniversary Oscar win perhaps too visibly, given that its producers also were in charge of this year's Oscars). And Adele, wowing not only with her singing of the Skyfall theme but with the force of her infectious personality as she added an Oscar to her shelf of Grammys.
The worst use of music? Any time the Jaws theme reared its head to play off a non-famous Oscar winner whose speech droned on too long. Funny in theory, it was shockingly rude in practice.
As often happens, especially when the show runs this long, the final leg was dominated by obligatory self-deprecating jokes from the relentless host (who even popped up to do "coming up next" bumpers). But this was one of those rare Oscar nights when it was worth staying up late if only for... the Oscars themselves. Of all things.
Many of the final winners reminded us why these awards can matter, memorably accepting with manic enthusiasm (Quentin Tarantino), charm (director Ang Lee), grace (Jennifer Lawrence recovering from falling up the steps in her voluminous gown), wit (Daniel Day-Lewis suggesting Meryl Streep was Spielberg's first choice for Lincoln) and emotion (Argo's Ben Affleck).
All elements lacking during MacFarlane's disingenuous turn in the spotlight. On a night when so much else sang, he and the show too often went flat.