Chalk it up perhaps to truncated prep time, but the strike-threatened Oscars yielded a sleek and workmanlike telecast.

Chalk it up perhaps to truncated prep time, but the strike-threatened Oscars yielded a sleek and workmanlike telecast — one that accentuated history, didn’t unduly tart up its production numbers, underscored cinema’s global profile and even yielded a few moments of genuine warmth and spontaneity, all in less time than usual. Despite that, the show will likely be hard-pressed to overcome the year’s challenging dynamics ratings-wise, inasmuch as the movies were dark and little seen and several key categories (best picture, actor, supporting actor) amounted to more of a coronation than a contest, blunting the suspense.

Jon Stewart played it pretty safe with his opening monologue, which referenced Hollywood’s at-least-temporary restoration of labor peace (the Oscars were the “makeup sex,” he said) along with the current presidential race in a light, fast and consistently funny manner. Riffing on the nominees and Hollywood’s liberal bent, “The Daily Show” host’s best line satirized the Bush administration’s stance on remaining in Iraq, saying that despite their general failure commercially, “Withdrawing the Iraq movies would only embolden the audience.”

Stewart also earned his keep by maintaining a playful, irreverent tone throughout the night, whether it was jesting about Cate Blanchett’s versatility or watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on an iPhone screen. Should he welcome the headaches associated with the gig, it’s hard to think of a current comedic talent better suited to such a thankless task.

Producer Gilbert Cates is among those who speak of the award-show gods — that is, the moments that aren’t planned or scripted — and they frequently smiled upon him Sunday. That included the international tone, with Javier Bardem addressing his beaming mother in Spanish; Tilda Swinton’s refreshingly spontaneous speech, saying she would give her Oscar (and not just 10% of it) to her agent; Marion Cotillard’s joyous, tearful moment; and Daniel Day-Lewis quaintly kneeling before presenter Helen Mirren.

Kudos to the producers, too, for bringing back “Once’s” co-best song winner, Marketa Irglova, after playing her off. Hell, there was even a kind of strange poetry in the Coen brothers’ near-nonverbal acceptances for adapted screenplay and direction.

Notably, politics (and specifically, a repudiation of President Bush) didn’t really rear its head until the documentary categories, which weren’t quite balanced by the obvious stunt of having U.S. soldiers present one of the honors.

From a structural point of view, the show was far from frontloaded, though organizers dotted the festivities with major categories after racing through technical ones in the first 45 minutes.

Setting up the highest-profile awards with montages of past recipients was another nifty touch — providing a taste of the footsteps in which winners will follow. That said, this anniversary show came close to overdosing on backward-looking clip packages, as if subconsciously hankering for simpler times.

Then again, nobody starting from scratch would ever design a TV special with all the hurdles that assail this one — where technical categories far outnumber those for stars and the playing field has shifted toward movies that relatively few people have seen.

Based on that grade-on-a-curve yardstick, this Academy Awards was alternatively a bore and a sporadic thrill. Sure, even streamlined compared with past marathons, the show easily could have been 20 minutes shorter. But it’s a definite improvement over last year, and any extensive nitpicking requires a short memory — forgetting that Oscar’s “good ol’ days” are generally best viewed through the prism of three-minute montages.

As for the arrivals, dreary weather outside the Kodak provided a fitting coda to an awards season disrupted by the strike — not that you’d know it from the giddiness of the hosts.

Even Regis Philbin couldn’t salvage ABC’s pre-show, which raced through guests as if on speed. On KABC-TV, critic Richard Roeper muttered “Awesome” on more than one occasion, seemingly dumbstruck by the tepid responses “entertainment guru” George Pennacchio kept eliciting. (Credit Michael Moore with being fast on his feet: Prodded to address the “international television audience,” he deadpanned, “Please forgive us.”)

The most honest moment, however, belonged to model Heidi Klum when E!’s ubiquitous and relentlessly unfunny Ryan Seacrest asked what stars she looked forward to seeing.

“Nobody,” Klum said.

Consider it a new twist on the expression, “Out of the mouths of babes.”

The 80th Annual Academy Awards -- From Your Couch

ABC, Sun. Feb. 24, 5:30 p.m. PT

Production

Broadcast from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Producer, Gilbert Cates; associate producer, Michael B. Seligman; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Jon Macks, Hal Kanter, Buz Kohan, Bruce Vilanch; special material written by Jon Stewart, David Javerbaum, Rory Albanese, Rachel Axler, Kevin Bleyer, Richard Blomquist; production designer, Roy Christopher; music director, Bill Conti; executive in charge of talent, Danette Herman.

Crew

Running Time: 3 HOURS, 21 MIN.

With

Host: Jon Stewart
Presenters: Amy Adams, Jessica Alba, Alan Arkin, Cate Blanchett, Josh Brolin, Steve Carell, George Clooney, Penelope Cruz, Miley Cyrus, Patrick Dempsey, Cameron Diaz, Colin Farrell, Harrison Ford, Jennifer Garner, Tom Hanks, Anne Hathaway, Katherine Heigl, Jonah Hill, Jennifer Hudson, Dwayne Johnson, Nicole Kidman, James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Jack Nicholson, Queen Latifah, Seth Rogen, Keri Russell, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Seinfeld, Hilary Swank, John Travolta, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Owen Wilson, Renee Zellweger.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more