The 88th Annual Academy Awards: TV Review

Chris Rock hosting Oscars - H 2016
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Chris Rock led a telecast that had important things to say, but still felt endless.

If you trusted your cable listing that Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast would be over after three hours, you are a) naive and not a regular viewer of the Oscars and b) really confused right now, having missed over 35 minutes of the ceremony on account of your DVR cutting off of the end of your recording.

If that's the case, you did not see some of the show's best moments, including a humble acceptance speech from Brie Larson and a lengthy but demonstrative one from Leonardo DiCaprio ("Let us not take this planet for granted. I don't take tonight for granted"), both widely expected winners, but both well-received. You also missed a genuine shocker as Spotlight took best picture honors — despite only a single prize in the first 200 minutes of the show — knocking off presumptive favorite The Revenant and the early evening's big winner, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Produced by David Hill and Reginald Hudlin and hosted by Chris Rock, the 88th Academy Awards telecast had a lot to cover, and it probably could have gone on forever if the band hadn't started playing winners off the stage early with "Ride of the Valkyries" from the first award on. For future reference, guys, repetition play-off music starts off funny but becomes obnoxious, and when you cut the Hungarian director of a Holocaust film (Laszlo Nemes of Son of Saul) off with Wagner, you probably did something wrong.

And that much-ballyhooed plan to speed things along by getting winners to thank as many people as possible with a running scroll at the bottom of the screen couldn't have been a more total failure. Half of the winners either didn't submit names or didn't get a scroll, many of the winners were still thanking their "teams" and they were still playing off folks like documentary short winner A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness' Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in the middle of an important statement. (DiCaprio, however, had no clock. He could have talked forever and nobody would have dared interrupt.)

Many viewers are going to feel like the Oscars didn't need Obaid-Chinoy's message because this was already perhaps the most activist telecast ever, at least in certain senses.

I've already written about Chris Rock's monologue, which was 10 minutes on nothing but the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, simultaneously acknowledging the Academy's problems, minimizing the room's complicity and pointing to potentially more serious problems in the room.

It was a funny monologue, and Rock was funny in a capacity that, as always happens in these shows, diminished more and more as he went along. In case you didn't get it from the monologue, the Oscars race issue was brought up in no less than three filmed segments, each of which was amusing on its own, but maybe together tended toward overkill, stretched across a telecast that ran long. The segment with Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan ("I'm the danish girl. These danishes are good, girl!") and Leslie Jones (as the Revenant bear) interspersed into white-skewing movies got a few laughs. The "Black History Month Minute" hosted by Angela Bassett was a one-joke premise, but I didn't anticipate that she was honoring Jack Black, rather than Will Smith, so kudos. And Chris Rock at the Compton movie theater talking with patrons who had no clue about any of the nominated films ("Where are you getting these movies from?") was sharp, though probably you could have gone to most movie theaters in the country and gotten similar bafflement about Room, Brooklyn and several of the other smaller nominees.

The show also made the mistake of conflating #OscarsSoWhite with a black/white binary, hence the very odd taste left by a joke in which Rock introduced three Asian kids as the Oscars accountants — a joke which seemed to be about child labor, or maybe about Asian accountants, but didn't really land either way. Diversity means a whole lot of things, but maybe it means nothing, as Kevin Hart got a warm response for announcing, "Let's not let this negative issue of diversity beat us." Yeah. Your guess is as good as mine.

The first half of the show was focused heavily on #OscarsSoWhite, but the second half switched to sexual assault as a theme, peaking with the win for Spotlight, with a producer imploring, "Pope Francis, it's time to protect the children and restore the faith." This half also had what was, for the room, the night's most powerful moment as Lady Gaga sang her nominated song "Til It Happens to You" following an introduction by Vice President Joe Biden and joined in the end by a chorus of victims of sexual assault with messages tattooed on their arms. For me, the choppy editing of Gaga's performance lessened its clear impact, as the director refused to hold on either the powerful singing or the line of sexual assault survivors. The crowd, looking stunned, stood and roared, but then Lady Gaga and perennial bridesmaid Diane Warren lost to Sam Smith for his widely derided theme song from Spectre, "Writing's on the Wall." [Smith then sent people scurrying to Google when he misquoted Sir Ian McKellen, claiming no openly gay person had ever won an Oscar, when Sir Ian actually said no openly gay person had ever won a lead actor Oscar.]

Somehow amid all of this social commentary, actual politicizing was largely absent, though don't try telling some people that. The name "Donald Trump" was mentioned only by Andy Serkis in his intro to the visual effects prize, though Adam McKay cautioned about "weirdo billionaires" in a speech I interpreted to be referencing the Koch Brothers. Nobody mentioned Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or almost anything related to the current election cycle, which you can bet would have occurred under circumstances in which we weren't talking about diversity so much. Many people will claim the Oscars tonight were political. They were not. 

With all of the special performances and filmed bits, the telecast was overstuffed already, and that was before Rock said he was selling his daughter's Girl Scout cookies to the celebrity crowd. He said he made $65,000, but the only benefit to the show was some good candid reactions from the celebrities in the audience who looked either famished or like they'd never seen Girl Scout cookies before.

So much was happening that the producers blew a major opportunity to hold young viewers for a show that is already a masochistic experience for film fans. Starting at 10 p.m. ET, likely after the youngest viewers had either gone to bed or decided they didn't care, there was a long string of family-friendly moments that, at that late hour, were wasted. You think kids would have enjoyed seeing R2D2, C-3PO and BB-8? Too late. You think any grown-ups were actually interested in the Minions presenting? And why bother doing the adorable pairing of Jacob Tremblay and Abraham Attah if it's going to be buried in the third hour?

A few other highlights:

— Just as nobody was playing DiCaprio off, Ennio Morricone could have spoken as long as he wanted after a career-capping victory for The Hateful Eight. He received one of several late standing ovations.

— The Academy didn't want to nominate Tremblay, but the show's producers sure worked to get him on camera at every available opportunity, especially when he reacted with great enthusiasm to the Star Wars cameo.

— Kudos to Louis C.K. for making a great argument on why the documentary short category needs to continue to be part of the telecast. Usually the producers send a comedian out to make fun of that award, but he said of the filmmakers, "All they do is tell stories that are important" and added, "This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic." Then, of course, the winner got played off.

— Other good speeches came from half of the Mad Max: Fury Road winners, minor surprise winner Mark Rylance and Inside Out helmer Pete Docter.

The job of Oscar host is always somewhat thankless, because unless you're Billy Crystal, many people will hate you — and even if you are Billy Crystal, nobody will like your last time hosting. Rock did well within the single-minded approach he and the producers chose to take. Even if the conversation was sometimes myopic, there was an attempt to make the Oscars about something more important than just honoring rich people and, for at least half of the show, it felt like things were moving along at a good clip. It definitely didn't feel that way by the end.