Well, that didn't work.
Despite the valiant efforts of Adele, Barbra Streisand and a surprisingly witty Daniel Day-Lewis, not to mention a last-minute surprise appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama as co-presenter of the best picture award, touted as the first Oscar telecast with a theme — a tribute to musical Hollywood — was long, self-indulgent and dull even by the show's time-honored dull-defining standards.
And we had such hopes. The choice of Seth MacFarlane as host of the 85th Academy Awards offered the tantalizing possibility of a new sort of telecast — sharp, peppy, with more than a little bite. The edgy, high-energy creator and costar of a trio of television shows including "The Family Guy," as well as this year's feature film "Ted," has made his career satirizing, often profanely, the contradictions and self-indulgence of American popular culture. The entertainment community prepared to be roasted, the Standards and Practices folks went on high alert.
Then the show began.
Or tried to begin. After a few jokes that carefully pushed a few buttons — the story of "Argo" was so top secret that "the director is unknown to the academy," the story of "Django" was "of a man fighting to get back his woman, who's been subjected to unspeakable violence — or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie" — MacFarlane spent more than 16 minutes discussing how badly he was going to fare as a host. Pretty badly, according to William Shatner, who appeared in a pre-taped bit during the opening as "Star Trek's" Captain Kirk, returning from the future to keep MacFarlane from destroying the Oscars.
Here's the thing about making a joke about bombing at the Oscars: For the joke to work, you really need to avoid doing that. As expected, MacFarlane was occasionally crude and mildly offensive; unfortunately, he wasn't very funny. Which is a pretty big problem for a comedian and one not at all mitigated by playing up the possibility of being named the worst host in history.
His opening included three song and dance numbers (one simply a musical list of female performers who have bared their breasts called "We Saw Your Boobs") and an adaptation of the film "Flight" by sock puppets. It was ambitious, but unforgivably self-conscious and, like the rest of the show, it couldn't finally decide what note it was trying to strike.
Oh, wait a minute, those two hosted already, with mixed results; maybe if they did it together this time.
Never as entertaining as the Tonys, and recently in danger of being eclipsed by the Grammys or even the Golden Globes, the Oscars have yet to hit upon a tone that is both interesting to modern audiences and can carry the show from year to year. Glamour just doesn't cut it anymore; as Adele said of her dress, it's pretty, but it's so heavy that hitting the high notes can be a chore.
So it isn't fair to blame MacFarlane entirely for the slog much of Sunday night proved to be. From the moment producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron announced that this year's show would be "a celebration of music," storm clouds murmured uneasily over the Dolby. Yes, everyone wanted to hear Adele sing her nominated song "Skyfall" and, sure, let's get the cast of best picture nominee "Les Misérables" up on stage for a rousing chorus or two.
But just because Zadan and Meron also produced "Chicago" and "Smash" is no reason for the show to be interrupted halfway through by a "tribute to Hollywood musicals" that consisted of "Chicago's" Catherine Zeta-Jones singing "All That Jazz" and Jennifer Hudson (coincidentally now starring in "Smash") singing her solo from "Dreamgirls."
So consumed were the producers with the arrangement of all the musical numbers (including a closing number by MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth) that Zadan and Meron forgot the essential truism of their business: It's all in the timing and the presentation. The decision to introduce the best picture nominees in groups of three throughout the show forced the presenters to deliver laundry-list descriptions of each, which leeched the drama from the film clips and made even Liam Neeson sound boring.
Much was made of reassembling the cast (minus Thor and Black Widow) of "The Avengers," but the five guys who showed didn't have much to do. In fact, the writing for the presenters was so bad that even Melissa McCarthy fell flat — and, frankly, that takes some doing.
Surprisingly, however, many of the winners came through with touching and/or funny speeches. The below-the-line folks are invariably the best prepared, and Adele, mercifully brief in thanking those behind the song "and my man," was a treat. This time around some of the big winners came through as well, notably Quentin Tarantino, who ended with "peace out," and Daniel Day-Lewis, who, after receiving the lead actor award from Meryl Streep, mentioned that he had taken the role of Lincoln only after a plan to play Margaret Thatcher fell through.
Actually, he'd make a decent enough host for next year. If Amy, Tina and the sock puppets can't do it.