The 92nd annual Academy Awards quickly lost its own plot amid a million distractions courtesy of ABC’s frenetic, often baffling production decisions. But then, through the sheer pleasure of the groundbreaking winners of “Parasite” breaking through the expected narrative to triumph, the show became something far more beautifully chaotic than the show’s producers could have hoped for.
For about half the broadcast, the Oscars felt like a train that got jogged off its tracks. With most of the winners seemingly set in stone, ABC packed the night with presenters and performances to distract from what looked to be a predictable night, which only made the proceedings feel more crowded than ever. (In fairness: one aspect outside ABC’s control is the fact that this year’s original song nominees were especially uninspiring, which the elaborate stagings of every number, as well as bonus performances from artists like Janelle Monae and Billie Eilish, did their best to mask.) It often felt as if the show, which frequently mimicked the high-octane energy of the Grammys more than embodied the spirit of the Oscars, was trying to justify its presence.
Going host-less for the second year running ostensibly puts more pressure on the presenters, some of whom inevitably fared better than others. But the show’s emphasis on not just presenters, but (younger) presenters for the (more established) presenters, seriously pushed the limits of what constitutes a high value cameo. I’ve always wanted to know who networks think they’re luring into an awards show broadcast thanks to some star power reading the categories, and this round’s especially strange attempts confirm that awards shows are especially prone to the “more is more” approach, regardless of logic.
There’s just no reason, for instance, that “Booksmart” star Beanie Feldstein shouldn’t have presented alongside Mindy Kaling instead of alerting the audience to Kaling’s presence. “1917” breakout George McKay truly needn’t have thrown to Olivia Colman from the tippy top of the Dolby Theater. Most importantly, and perhaps in the most perfect summary of just how bizarre the night got by the halfway mark, who on earth suggested that Anthony Ramos introduce Lin-Manuel Miranda, so Lin-Manuel Miranda could introduce a montage of popular movies and the songs they made famous, which in turn introduced none other than Eminem performing the entirety of his 2002 Oscar-winning song “8 Mile,” for no other reason than he didn’t get the chance before and that has a new album to promote? By the time Utkarsh Ambudkar was rapping about what had already happened in the ceremony so far, in a tepid reboot of Neil Patrick Harris’ go to closing bit for the Tonys, it seemed like the show had completely lost the thread.
But towards the end of the night, a double whammy of surprise wins changed the tide of the night and show, ABC’s forced idea of fun be damned. After picking up Oscars for original screenplay and international feature (and giving two distinctly funny and poignant speeches), a visibly shocked Bong Joon Ho took best director — and then “Parasite” won best picture, becoming the first international feature to ever do so. The rush of joy accompanying each win, Bong’s open shock, the room’s delight at a supposedly set awards season narrative falling apart in front of their eyes all combined to make the kind of thrilling moments that can only happen on live TV when all the best laid plans have been long left by the wayside.
There’s maybe no better metaphor for the night as when ABC, no doubt sweating bullets as the show approached its three-and-a-half hour mark, tried to go dark on the winding final speeches from the “Parasite” team, only to have the audience (led by front row fanatics Charlize Theron and Tom Hanks) erupt in a chant of “up! up!” until the poor control booth relented, putting the house lights back on to let the winners finish their thoughts. Unlike James Corden and Rebel Wilson’s rambling “Cats” banter, this sharp left turn from the expected course of events wasn’t exactly in ABC’s plans, but it really couldn’t have asked for a better finale than it accidentally got. Nothing written in advance could beat the sight of deserving winners basking in their victory while sharing pointed, personal insight on why the wins mean so much.
Put another way: the late-breaking “Parasite” run brought the kind of shock to the system and refreshing verve that only a live event like the Oscars can — and after almost three hours of frantic vamping, a downright relief.