TV Review: ‘The 88th Academy Awards’

Host: Chris Rock.

Staging the Oscars is already a delicate high-wire act, and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, fueled by a lack of diversity among the highest-profile nominees, added a formidable degree of difficulty. Meeting the high expectations the build-up engendered, Chris Rock brilliantly threaded the needle with his opening monologue. After addressing the elephant in the room, however, the producers and host went back to that issue a few times too many (and less sharply), in a telecast that yielded periodic highlights but couldn’t overcome the Academy Awards’ habit of feeling mostly inert.

Given how awkwardly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handled the criticism when its nominations were announced, Rock performed an enormous service by tackling the absence of performers of color in such a smart yet funny way. Not only did he manage to underscore what the problem really boils down to – a deficiency of opportunity – but he put the debate into perspective, noting that the flood of indignation in part reflects overall societal progress versus where the U.S. was during past decades of Oscar history.

Rock was especially astute in characterizing Hollywood as being “sorority racist,” practiced subtly enough to undermine the town’s notoriously liberal leanings. If action to remedy these shortcomings begins with a conversation, Rock got the ball rolling without turning the event into a lecture – no small feat, under the circumstances.

The material was so strong, in fact, it would have been wiser to return to it sparingly – certainly by having Rock revisit those theaters in Compton and interview African-American film-goers, a highlight of his earlier hosting stint and this one. But the producers didn’t stop there, going back to diversity with mixed results, in a reasonably clever taped piece that involved inserting black actors into nominated films and a “Black History Month” bit that fell flat.

Moreover, the emphasis on race largely ignored one of the clearest themes to emerge from the ceremony – namely, the international nature of the movie business, which was repeatedly conveyed by the host of technical honors amassed by “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

The show’s producers were Reginald Hudlin and David Hill, the latter the former Fox Sports chief, who brought all sorts of memorable innovations to football and baseball coverage. Yet despite Hill’s reputation as an innovator, it became relatively clear that there was only so much tinkering they could reasonably do with the basic Oscar template. (Disclosure: Hill employed me a few years ago as a part-time columnist for Foxsports.com.)

Take the idea of including a scroll of pre-identified “thank yous” across the bottom of the screen, intended to allow winners to say something more meaningful than just rattling off names. As it turned out, the powerful urge to express gratitude to people in this career-topping moment – family, agents, peers – simply overwhelmed efforts to rewrite or rein in the speeches.

Some recipients, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Rylance and Sam Smith, took the opportunity to say something with a bit more substance to heart. So, for that matter, did “The Revenant” director Alejandro G. Inarritu, which made the attempt to play him off mid-speech all the more cloddish.

Other production flourishes were more successful, from the pop-up cheat sheets about the presenters to the way the sound and cinematography categories portrayed their contributions. That said, those technical categories would have clipped along faster if the honorees didn’t seemingly have to be bussed in from the parking lot.

Politics are another recurring question surrounding the Oscars, and there were several references likely to rile conservatives, from DiCaprio’s impassioned comments about climate change to Andy Serkis’ glancing shot at Donald Trump, from Sam Smith’s advocacy for LGBT rights to “The Big Short” director Adam McKay’s plea not to support candidates who favor the unrestricted flow of money into campaigns. Notably, Vice President Joe Biden received a standing ovation, as he introduced Lady Gaga’s show-stopping performance of the nominated song from the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” arrestingly flanked by rape victims.

That moment stood out, as did the ovation for veteran composer Ennio Morricone, and Louis C.K.’s hilarious riff about how the documentary short Oscar would go home with someone driving a Honda Civic. And yes, it was even cute when Rock used the well-heeled audience to peddle Girl Scout cookies.

The producers also labored to give “Star Wars” a presence within the telecast, given what a commercial juggernaut the film has been. The highlight, though, was seeing “Room’s” young co-star Jacob Tremblay leap to his feet to catch a glimpse of the droids from “The Force Awakens.”

To its credit, ABC’s preshow acknowledged the diversity issue, including a brief interview with Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. In fact, the conversation was moderately more substantive than has often been true in terms of the mix between discussing the movies and fashion (the emphasis on the latter having produced its own hashtags). Of course, that’s allowing for the inevitable fawning and giddiness strewn over 90 minutes, as in “Wow! The stars are walking up stairs into the theater! I was sure they were carried in gently on the wings of angels.”

On the downside, the network indulged in a brazen level of self-promotion, plugging not just Jimmy Kimmel’s after-show and Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa’s next-day “Live” episode, but also working in ABC primetime stars Kerry Washington and Priyanka Chopra.

Ultimately, all those responsible for this year’s Oscars are likely relieved to put the event behind them, in a show that went off without a major hitch. Yet while the #OscarsSoWhite controversy is hardly settled, nor is the more prosaic matter of #OscarsPrettyDull.

TV Review: 'The 88th Academy Awards'

(Special; ABC, Sun. Feb. 28, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Production: Broadcast live from the Dolby Theatre.

Crew: Producers, David Hill, Reginald Hudlin; supervising producer, Michael Seligman; director, Glenn Weiss; consulting producers, Cindy Hauser, Nicolle Yaron, Chris Pizzi; head writer, Billy Kimball; production designer, Derek McLane; supervising music producer, Byron Phillips; music director, Harold Wheeler; choreographer, Fatima Robinson; talent producer, Taryn Hurd; lighting design, Robert Dickinson. 3 HOURS, 37 MIN.

Cast: Host: Chris Rock.

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