Review: Bloated Oscar telecast gets in way of terrific Oscar ceremony

Senior Television Writer
02.23.15 126 Comments

AP

At three hours and 38 minutes, the 2015 Academy Awards didn't come close to the record for the longest Oscar telecast, which is still held by the 2002 ceremony, which ran an absurd four hours and 23 minutes. Still, there were moments throughout tonight's show where it felt like not only hours were passing, but days, weeks and possibly epochs.

The thing dragged in so many spots, and was so badly time-managed, that we made it to 11:15 p.m. Eastern – 15 minutes before the show was scheduled to end – with the introduction of a completely unnecessary Lady Gaga tribute to “The Sound of Music,” even though there were still seven awards to present.

It ran on and on and on and on so much that when host Neil Patrick Harris finally got around to paying off a running gag about his Oscar predictions being locked in a box on stage left, he had to stop to explain the bit to us all over again, because it had been so damn long since the concept was introduced. Had the payoff been intentionally funny – as opposed to NPH accidentally mangling the pronunciation of Chiwetel Ejiofor's name while making a joke apologizing for the earlier mispronunciation of Chiwetel Ejiofor's name – maybe it would have redeemed the amount of time devoted to the idea, or at least to bothering with it so late in the show, but the final jokes fizzled just as much as all the ones that came before them.

This was the third turn at the helm for producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose priorities in Oscar-casting have tended to go in the following order: 1)Paying homage to movie musicals, even though it's a mostly dormant genre; 2)Paying homage to the works of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (like the year they worked in two different homages to their “Chicago”); and 3)Paying homage to the nominated films of the year. So we opened with a musical number by NPH, with cameos from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black, plus performances of all the nominated songs, plus the “Sound of Music” medley, plus Jennifer Hudson capping the In Memoriam sequence with… the performance of a song from Zadan and Meron's canceled NBC series “Smash.”

The best song performances were actually terrific, from the exuberant all-star performance of “Everything Is Awesome” to the stirring recreation of the Selma march during John Legend and Common's rendition of the winning song, “Glory.” (It brought tears to the eyes of both “Selma” star David Oyelowo – whose name Harris also repeatedly mispronounced – and musical theater lover Chris Pine.) And the opening number is both a frequent device of Oscar hosts and the kind of thing NPH has made his stock in trade while hosting the Emmys and the Tonys; this one just didn't register at all. But on the whole, it again felt like Zadan and Meron were producing a show paying tribute to some version of the movie business that hasn't existed for a very long time.

And Harris, usually so relaxed and likable in awards host mode, was sweating early and often in this one. The predictions gag was dead from the outset – how did no one think to have the payoff include a joke about how he should have abandoned the whole thing sooner? – and his jokes in general were much snarkier and off-key than he usually comes off in these jobs, whether he was making a joke about a winner's dress mere moments after she had just discussed her son's suicide(*), or following the “Citizenfour” win for documentary feature by saying its subject, Edward Snowden, “could not be here for some treason.” No Oscar host bats a thousand – the show is too long and unwieldy and there's only so much the host can do after the first hour or so – but either the production consumed Harris, the writing failed him, or he picked a very strange night to go off-brand.

(*) That speech also involved the mortifying spectacle of the Oscar orchestra (performing remotely at the Capitol Records Building) starting to play her off right as she began mentioning her son's suicide, then stopping once someone in the control room realized what was happening and cut off the music. For the next hour or so of the show, even the longer speeches didn't face the play-off music, no doubt because the producers were afraid of a repeat incident.

And the thing is, the actual speeches by the winners – in theory, the point of the show, but something that producers long before Zadan and Meron have treated like an inconvenience that they'd prefer to disguise – were almost uniformly fantastic tonight. We didn't get the usual laundry lists of agents, managers, dog groomers, etc. The winners gave actual speeches with actual subjects. Many tied into the subjects of the movies, like Legend and Common discussing racial inequality 50 years after the events of “Selma,” or “Boyhood” star Patricia Arquette talking about equal pay for women (and inspiring the gif-worthy moment of the night from Meryl streep and Jennifer Lopez), or “The Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore discussing his suicide attempt at 16, with a plea for kids who feel like they don't fit in to “stay weird, stay different.” Others were simply about a topic the winner cared about, like J.K. Simmons asking everybody to give their parents a phone call. A few speeches dragged here and there, but despite few surprise wins and a lot of people who had spent the last several months on the awards circuit, there was energy, there was passion, and there was creativity.

There was also all that padding, all that music, all those long and awkward exchanges between Harris and Octavia Spencer (who resembled the cat from the Pepe Le Pew cartoons in her desire to escape being part of the lockbox bit by any means necessary). That the production didn't start rushing at the end – as often happens when we get late in the evening and it's running long – was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we didn't start treating the big awards of the night as something to be raced through before Anna Kendrick's ride turned back into a pumpkin. On the other, it was exhausting getting there, particularly as so many comedy bits along the way struggled.

There is no perfect way to do an Oscar telecast. Usually, the desire to put on a good show seems at war with the functional purpose of the evening, and as a result, you get shows that are too long, badly-paced, and that awkwardly shift gears throughout. Tonight, though, the awards themselves were entertaining enough that the show would have done much better without so many of the bells and whistles that were thrown in to compensate for what was presumed to be the boring ceremony itself.

What did everybody else think? Did you think NPH did well, or struggled? Were you hoping that Jennifer Hudson would be followed by Kat McPhee and Megan Hilty singing “Let Me Be Your Star”? Was the lockbox payoff all you dreamed of? And what former Zadan/Meron production will be the centerpiece of next year's ceremony?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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