Review: Seth MacFarlane emcees a conflicted, bloated, song-heavy Oscar-cast

The career of Seth MacFarlane has often seemed like a battle for supremacy between Frat Boy Seth and Old-Time Hollywood Seth, and every time it seems the former has won, the latter will slip an extended recreation of “Shipoopi” from “The Music Man” into an episode of “Family Guy.” He makes his money on dick and fart jokes and ’80s reference humor, but you get the sense sometimes that he’d be happier singing showtunes.

MacFarlane’s stint as host of the 2013 Academy Awards was that battle writ large, on the most prominent stage he’s ever had, and a rare one where he wasn’t hiding behind an animated rendering of an evil baby or a crude teddy bear. MacFarlane came out dressed in a classic black tuxedo, channeling Johnny Carson as he cracked jokes about being the last choice to host the show and about “Argo” being “so top secret that the film’s director is unknown to the Academy.” It was Old-Time Hollywood Seth all the way for a few minutes, before the other guy started to slip in and cause trouble, starting with a Chris Brown joke that drew groans in the room and another about the dialogue of “Django Unchained” being “loosely based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails.”

MacFarlane attempted to have it both ways as his monologue brought in William Shatner as Captain Kirk, sent back from the 23rd Century to prevent him from being the worst Oscar host ever. Each time MacFarlane asked what he had done to offend so many, Kirk provided video evidence – a musical number listing actresses who have shown their breasts on camera (at times in movies about rape, like “The Accused”), or a sock puppet adaptation of “Flight” – at pretty much full length each time. He tried to apologize for these offenses with more traditional songs – crooning Frank Sinatra while Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum danced around him, or teaming up with Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for “High Hopes” – but the device still got the offending material into the show in its entirety. Give us 10 or 15 seconds of “We Saw Your Boobs,” and it’s effective self-satire; give us the whole thing, and that’s what you really wanted to do, framework or no.

Either way, a monologue that ran over 15 minutes – setting the stage for a show that ended more than a half hour past its allotted time – and was largely about the persona of the host and not the movies was not an auspicious start to a frequently messy, but occasionally surprising and/or entertaining evening. MacFarlane had some funny moments here and there (I actually liked the sock puppet gag, and thought his variation on the tired old “this next presenter needs no introduction” was clever, to name two), but he missed way more than he hit, and Frat Boy Seth quickly assumed dominance as the evening went along, typified by the joke about 9-year-old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis growing up to one day have sex with George Clooney, or the one where he suggested that “Zero Dark Thirty” was a story about “every woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go.”

And what was odd was that if ever there was a night for Old-Time Hollywood Seth to carry the day, it was this one – not just because it was the Oscars, but because Oscar-cast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron seemed to only care about the classic pageantry of movie musicals. They made the music of the movies the night’s theme, did two separate tributes to “Chicago” – which, not coincidentally, was produced by Zadan and Meron – and built two other of the night’s centerpieces (first the much-hyped but largely underwhelming James Bond tribute, then the In Memoriam segment) around a diva standing at center stage and belting (respectively, Shirley Bassey on “Goldfinger” and Barbra Streisand on “The Way We Were”).

For a while there, those musical numbers – which also included Jennifer Hudson (currently appearing on the Zadan/Meron-produced “Smash”) doing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” – were the only parts of the show that seemed to be working at all, and even they didn’t uniformly work. Adele’s rendition of the theme from “Skyfall” was horribly mixed; when one of the best, most powerful voices in all of music is getting drowned out by anything or anyone, someone has very badly screwed up. But that was still preferable to the way the scripted intros kept bombing while the presenters looked mortified, or the way the orchestra kept loudly piping in the “Jaws” theme to drown out winners whose speeches ran long, even as they were in the middle of really emotional moments.(*)

(*) Anne Hathaway’s speech ran longer than either of the winners who got “Jaws”ed earlier in the evening, which isn’t a knock on her but on the obnoxiousness of the system. When I mentioned this on Twitter, several people suggested that an actor would never get played off the stage, when it’s happened frequently – including in this very category a year ago, when Octavia Spencer didn’t get to finish her speech, either. Maybe if you cut the monologue a bit and keep it down to a single “Chicago” tribute, the “Jaws” music becomes less essential, eh?

Things perked up a bit as the show moved into its second half, which both featured more of the winners everyone in the audience cared about, and where the winners were more unpredictable and/or had better speeches. The problem was that it took so long to get there – it was an hour and 40 minutes into the show before the second acting award was presented – and the producers for some reason kept inserting MacFarlane into the show, when even the best hosts tend to find their presence minimized the later in the evening it gets, that it was hard to stay fully engaged in a lot of it.

As I always say, there are some things the producers of the Oscars can’t avoid. There will always be too many awards the viewers at home don’t care about – though at least this year, the sound awards offered the unexpected running gag of all the winners looking like “Die Hard” henchmen – and the march of awards season sucks much of the surprise and creativity out of the final event. (I knew watching the Golden Globes, for instance, that Hathaway wasn’t going to top her speech that night, and she never did.)

But the bloat can be controlled. The writing can be a hell of a lot better, as can the directing. (The “Avengers” cast’s bit was going to bomb no matter what, but it wasn’t helped by our inability to see Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr. at the same time.) And the host can pick one identity and stick with it – preferably, the one that’s better suited for the occasion.

The night ended, of course, not with Ben Affleck’s moving “Argo” victory speech, but with one more song. MacFarlane returned to the stage with Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth to sing “Here’s to the Losers,” an original ditty trying to console the non-winning likes of Bradley Cooper (“Here’s your silver lining: You’ll do ‘Hangover 4!'”). It was the night in a nutshell: an unnecessary musical number, a prolongation of a show with way too much fat on its bones, featuring a combination of poor production technique and half-hearted performance from MacFarlane and Chenoweth (who were, of course, singing to a rapidly-emptying theater) that rendered the lyrics difficult to hear at times, and in questionable taste overall.

No, Seth MacFarlane won’t go down in history as the worst Oscar host ever. James Franco has that title in a death grip, and will take 50 other jobs if necessary to hang onto it. But it’s hard to imagine either him or Zadan and Meron being asked back after tonight’s show.

Some other thoughts:

* There are always going to be unfortunate omissions to the In Memoriam reel, but how on Earth do you leave out Andy Griffith? Yes, he was most famous as a TV actor, but when you star in perhaps the best movie ever made about celebrity (Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”), that’s enough to qualify even before you factor in “No Time for Sergeants,” “Waitress,” etc.

* Daniel Day-Lewis is just better than the rest of us, here delivering the best joke of the night when suggesting that originally, he was going to play Margaret Thatcher while presenter Meryl Streep was Spielberg’s first choice to be Abe Lincoln.

* One piece of bloat from past shows that Zadan and Meron thankfully cut out was the individual speeches to the acting nominees, instead giving us actual clips of the work.

* The White House has had a role in the Oscars before – Ronald Reagan, for instance, recorded a message that opened the 1981 show – but it had been a while before First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up to present Best Picture with Jack Nicholson. I can’t have been the only one disappointed that she didn’t open the envelope and say “Argo fuck yourself,” can I?

What did everybody else think? How do you think MacFarlane did? Did any speeches stand out to you? Did you want even more musical numbers?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at