TV Review: Seth MacFarlane Wins at Oscar Hosting Against Odds

Seth Macfarlane Oscars - P 2013
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The one thing that's important to remember when discussing the Academy Awards is that its relentless push to make the ceremony seem like the most important thing in the world is precisely what dooms its hosts. There is never 100 percent consensus that a host did a great job, or even that a host did a lousy job. But it's 100 percent true that this is the most over-analyzed three-hour job in Hollywood.

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Despite what the Oscars thinks it means to the world, the fact remains that it's just an awards show. Nothing more. And that's why those who hosts, no matter the praise or the outcry, will live another day, even the infamous participants like Rob Lowe. It's why the modern-day nadir -- James Franco and Anne Hathaway -- means nothing a couple of years removed from the debacle. It means that as much as everybody loved Billy Crystal in his heyday, history also will forget the fact that he came back last year and seemed painfully out of place and out of time and the absolute wrong knee-jerk replacement to Eddie Murphy. Just as it forgets everything to do with what amounts to, in the judgment book, a trifle. And so let's not puff out our chests and bleat on too much about whether the host worked or not. 

Because that is always a biased appraisal. And in week's time, it will mean nothing. 

If anything, what this year's Academy Awards should be remembered for is a real mixed bag of winners, a triumphant victory for Argo that called into question Ben Affleck's directorial snub, a risky emphasis on song and dance and the surprise appearance of the first lady to read -- for the first time in history -- the best picture winner.

But the host is always the lightning rod. And you can be damn sure that the Academy got very, very lucky this year. It has been trying to skew younger for years, often with disastrous results (see: Franco, James). When they chose Seth MacFarlane, best known as the creator of Family Guy and about 63 other animated shows on Fox -- and the guy behind Ted, the talking bear on the big screen -- they must have known it was a polarizing choice. For starters, even people who love MacFarlane do so in part because he's fearless when skewering pop culture and has absolutely zero hesitation in crossing line after line of perceived good taste. Secondly, despite his high-profile awareness in the industry, the real world barely knows who he is. So giving him the reins was an almost unfathomable risk.

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I knew the Oscars were going to be a hot topic when so many people -- who seemed to be waiting for MacFarlane to fall on his face -- thought he was a disaster when he showed up to announce the nominees. Guess what? He was far from it. He was fine. He was himself. Only Hollywood, with agendas to the left and right, could have taken that amazingly brief appearance from MacFarlane and tried to spin it into a disaster.

It wasn't. And neither was his hosting gig Sunday night. In fact, MacFarlane was relatively tame if you know anything at all about his canon, and he was respectful through and through. As a guy who can actually sing and has recorded a successful album (fueling more jealousy and backlash from his detractors), his pick was more spot-on than anyone gave the Academy credit for. But they did get lucky. He didn't give up, like Franco. He took the job extremely seriously and put himself out there. Ultimately, he excelled at balance. The red carpet coverage of the Oscars is a particularly heinous thing to endure if you're a journalist or truly despise vapid people, and this year's tongue-bath of fawning was not much different. To prove his many detractors wrong - those people who were criticizing MacFarlane before the show was anywhere near ready -- he could have come out and been obsequious in his praise of those participating. What he did, however, was mix in plenty of niceties with a little bit of the Ricky Gervais bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you thing and worked the juxtaposition rather nicely.

While live-blogging the show, I could easily tell those who hated MacFarlane before he said a word and those who were pleasantly surprised. At least the latter kept an open mind. But how do you win at these hosting gigs, anyway? Yes, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were wonderful at hosting the Golden Globes (credit MacFarlane for working them into a bit with William Shatner, as a figure from the future who points out how awful MacFarlane was at hosting). But so was Jimmy Kimmel at hosting the Emmys -- he killed in the room, and a lot of people thought he did a fantastic job, but many of the reviews were not supportive. The hosting gig is highly subjective. And who would think Kimmel did a great job if they don't watch is late-night show? In many ways, MacFarlane was even a far less known entity for the general public, and maybe they will ultimately choose to reject him. But for a guy who had the deck stacked against him before he started, MacFarlane did a surprisingly impressive job. Not everything worked; it never does for any host. But he had just the right amount of spice in the jokes to give a sting to the recipients (Mel Gibson, etc.) without crossing lines.

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What might ultimately be more important as an argument is whether the decision to go with so much singing and dancing -- musical numbers galore -- was the right move. There's certainly a contingent who think that the core Oscar audience would be up for that kind of thing, where others (and I'll count myself among those who could have done with fewer numbers) might have opted out. But listen, at least the Oscars seemed to have a plan this time: Celebrate music and dance and don't look back. That was the strategy, just as the earliest decision was to name MacFarlane and not shrink from the chatter that followed. 

Besides, if we can agree that the host, like a quarterback, gets too much credit and too much blame, the onus is really on whether the movies that year were any good, popular or engaging. This year there seemed to be a wildly divergent collection and, by the end of award season, few clear slam dunks (Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway to name two) and with the potential for surprises everywhere. Now that's the kind of awards show you want: one that breeds indecision and allows for shocks and surprises, which is what happened this year.

I'll leave it to the movie experts to debate the winners and losers. But as a show, the heavy emphasis on musical numbers ultimately might be more important than the choice of the host. We'll have to wait until the ratings come in before looking at it in cold, hard numbers. But I'd argue that with the deck stacked very much against him, MacFarlane did impressively better than one would have wagered. But here, again, let's keep perspective. Next year, someone else will likely do it. And nobody will be talking about what MacFarlane got right or wrong. In fact, the only wrong here at all is putting too much importance on the host and not enough on the categories, nominees and winners.


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