For Seth MacFarlane's critics, Sunday night was supposed to be the moment we finally got to see the guy get his comeuppance. A "billion" viewers around the world, one of the most prestigious gigs in all of entertainment: As Oscar host, this was his chance to justify his swiftly, perhaps inexplicably, rising star. Or, if we were lucky, he'd embarrass himself, his petty, juvenile humor crashing and burning in front of the world, leaving nothing but some hair and two dimples and the wreckage of bad Jews-in-Hollywood jokes smoldering on the stage of the Dolby Theatre. We'd all have a good laugh about it later: Remember when Seth MacFarlane totally ate it at the Oscars? God, that was great.
When Will and I discussed back in October all the reasons we weren't happy with his selection as host, I ended by saying, partly as a joke but partly not, "Just think how funny this will all seem in five months when it turns out MacFarlane was the best Oscar host in 30 years." And when last night's show started, there was a part of me that wondered if maybe I was more right than I had realized. Maybe not the best host in 30 years, but definitely a step up from Billy Crystal or the truly dreadful co-hosting gig from James Franco and Anne Hathaway from a couple years ago. He wasn't good, sure, but at least he did the job in a way that breathed some life into a production that's been in repertory for years.
I've long hated Family Guy, but it does have a certain irritating, button-pushing vigor to it that occasionally overcomes the show's nihilism. Last night's Oscars were a lot like an episode of Family Guy. Around the time that Captain Kirk showed up to warn MacFarlane about how badly the show would be received, the host seemed to be in his element. The bit had all his usual tics: It was a riff on pop culture, wrapped in a critic-proofing self-awareness that too often MacFarlane mistakes for a license to be stupid. And yet it worked. He did an irony half-gainer with a meta twist and still stuck the landing. I laughed at the "We Saw Your Boobs" song, though your mileage will vary. It deflated the night's most high-minded pretensions and reminded us in a giddy, old-show-biz way that movies are still, at bottom, about stroking the lower impulses of the audience. This is tacky and so is Hollywood, MacFarlane seemed to be saying. Don't forget it.
But, as per norm, MacFarlane couldn't help himself. In general, he seems wholly incapable of doing anything at less than 100 percent smarminess. He started off with self-deprecation, but as the night wore on, the jokes curdled into meanness. It's not impossible to make a dig at Quentin Tarantino's fervent wish to seem black. And any host would have made a crack about Emmanuelle Riva's age and Quvenzhané Wallis's youth. But when MacFarlane did it, it was with an air of remote snideness, the peanut gallery finally getting a clean shot, rather than a playful member of the tribe mocking the chieftains. You just sat there going, "Who is this TV guy making jokes about people who have actually made good movies?" If the Oscar producers wanted us to rally around the power of film by getting everyone to turn on the host, then in that way, they succeeded. (Though I do have to commend him for his admittedly creaky Mel Gibson joke, where he nicely responded to the audience's groans by saying, "Oh, so you're on his side?" It might have been his best line—and it punctured the sanctimony in the room.)
The result, in ways both good and bad, was an Oscars that felt energetic and disjointed and sorta loose and weirdly under-rehearsed. The downsides were immediately apparent. Usually, the Academy Awards throw together two very different presenters and then watch as they exude zero charisma on stage. This year was unique in that they brought together casts of popular movies—Chicago and The Avengers—and then watched the actors behave as if they had never been in the same room together. Flubbed presentations abounded. (Seriously, it was as if Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy had never done comedy before.) This might have been one of the most unpolished Oscars in recent years.
But it wasn't boring—it wasn't Crystal mugging his way through everything, so eager to be loved by everyone in the room, and slowly putting you to sleep in the process. The shows it most reminded me of were two that I think remain underrated: Chris Rock's and David Letterman's. Like theirs, MacFarlane's Oscars were antagonistic. You got the sense that the hosts didn't really care about the pageantry of the evening, nor did they much like the people in front of them. And in all three cases, that's exactly why the host was chosen. But Rock and Letterman are seasoned live performers who know how to work a room. MacFarlane isn't anything like that, and you could see him struggle. (And maybe that had its charms, too. It felt as if the audience were generally sympathetic to him, as opposed to, say, previous host Ellen DeGeneres, who seemed to shrink as the night went on, the ineffectiveness of her tame bits evaporating in the dead air.)
Of course, MacFarlane was helped by the fact that last night was one of the most unpredictable recent Oscars in terms of the winners. Starting with the first award of the evening, which Christoph Waltz won for Best Supporting Actor, surprises were a theme. Some of them were minor—Lincoln's production design win—but others kept the night on edge. Ang Lee beat out Steven Spielberg for Best Director. There was a tie for Best Sound Editing, only the sixth tie in Oscar history and the first in almost 20 years.
Some surprises were built into the show. Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to announce Best Picture. And the producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (executive producers on Chicago and the TV show Smash) tried to tap into the spontaneous energy you expect from the Grammys or the Tonys with lots of musical numbers. Too bad, at least on TV, the sound mix was often iffy. (Adele managed to kill in her "Skyfall" performance, and Shirley Bassey was great doing "Goldfinger.")
And there was also a cheeky irreverence throughout, most noticeable in the decision to use the Jaws theme as the play-'em-off-the-stage music. No doubt the producers hoped that it would add a bit of levity to those always-uncomfortable moments when winners have gotten down to thanking their wealth managers. Instead, it had the opposite effect: It made you feel bad for them—never more so than when the Visual Effects winners from Life of Pi spoke up for Rhythm & Hues, a long-running effects company facing bankruptcy, and were cut off during one of the few heartfelt speeches of the night. At that point I longed for Jon Stewart, who rescued a similar moment in 2008 when Best Song winner Markéta Irglová was cut off initially but then brought back on to finish her thanks. No such luck this time around, alas. Forget "We Saw Your Boobs"—that was the tackiest moment of the night.
In the Oscars' aftermath, people rushed to declare MacFarlane a terrible host. But was he really so bad? At the very least, these Academy Awards tried something different—a little lefthanded humor, for once, with weird non-sequitur jokes (the Sound of Music gag, for instance) and an overall roast-like tone (that awful closing song with Kristin Chenoweth). It didn't all work—a lot of it didn't work—but at least the show wasn't lazy or safe. People who love Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes have wondered how he might do on the Oscars. He and MacFarlane get their laughs from opposite directions, but last night gave us some idea of what a Gervais-hosted Academy Awards might look like. Learn from MacFarlane's example, Academy producers. There were some good ideas there: more energy, more music, more off-kilter humor. Now, you just need to find a better host to implement them.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.