Off the Carpet: A most competitive, campaign-heavy season heads into the final turn

It's almost over. Voting for the 86th annual Academy Awards ends tomorrow at 5pm PT. Most ballots have already been turned in, of course, and many were probably coming in early, as paper ballots somehow again hit mailboxes a week ahead of the official opening of online polls on Feb. 14. What will one of the most competitive seasons on record have to show for itself on Sunday night?

When the dust settles, we'll certainly have seen one of the more campaign-heavy seasons to date. No one has just rolled over and some have pulled out all the stops. Just look at Paramount's push for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which just went for it with a vibrant “Because It's Awesome” outdoor campaign. Warner Bros. tapped a more emotional vein in TV spots for “Gravity,” highlighting it as more than “just” a feat of craftsmanship. And though characteristically reserved on a matter such as this throughout the season, Fox Searchlight finally “went there” on behalf of “12 Years a Slave” with various “It's Time” notations in newspapers and commercials last week. (This is just me talking but I feel like that step wouldn't have felt necessary if it wasn't such a tight race.)

Then there's the late night circuit. I had to ask around to make sure it wasn't just me, but if you flipped through the channels over the last couple of weeks, the saturation of Oscar nominees making talk show appearances felt like it was at an all-time high. We're knee deep in the awards season at all times around here, but even I'm feeling beleaguered, like I can't escape these movies and these faces as of late.

Jimmy Fallon kicked off his stint hosting “The Tonight Show” with a big U2 performance on top of 30 Rock in New York, and the band closed out the show with an intimate rendition of their Oscar-nominated song “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The rest of the week featured guests like Bradley Cooper and Arcade Fire, while others like Jonah Hill and Martin Scorsese stopped by for sketch appearances. “American Hustle” director David O. Russell – who appeared on “The Daily Show” the very same day – was in the audience for Cooper's appearance. (Keeping a watchful eye?) Oh, and though not a nominee, Emma Thompson showed up for a funny charades bit with Cooper and singer Tim McGraw.

Over on CBS, David Letterman welcomed “12 Years a Slave” star Lupita Nyong'o last week. It was a charming appearance indicative of one of my favorite parts of this season so far: seeing this young lady have the time of her life. She's also set for an appearance on “Conan” this week. And speaking of which, Scorsese and Hill both made Team Coco appearances over the last couple of weeks.

Hill is all over the place, actually, showing up on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” along with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Matthew McConaughey and June Squibb (who also participated in this hilarious “Meet the Nominees” bit). Hill and John Goodman were the only Oscar season players to host an episode of “Saturday Night Live” this season as well. Also on Kimmel just a couple of weeks after the Oscar nominations were announced was “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, and McConaughey, remember, helped Jay Leno close out his final week of “The Tonight Show” two weeks back, as did Sandra Bullock.

Finally, Steve Coogan stopped by “Real Time” to talk Catholicism and “Philomena” with Bill Maher on Friday. That was a week after “Dirty Wars” director and “Real Time” regular Jeremy Scahill dropped by the show, while “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley was on two weeks after the nominations were announced.

All of this reflects the six studios that have Best Picture skin in this year's Oscar game. And no, nominees on late night isn't a new thing, particularly during the Olympics, which brings a ratings boost. Rising waters lift all ships, after all; NBC has been averaging maybe two or three times as many viewers leading into the 11:30pm time slot as they normally would, some nights more. But other than that, why the seemingly out-of-the-ordinary influx of nominees on the tube?