A few thoughts on the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane, and The Onion

I normally don’t pay much attention to the Oscars, and I certainly had not seen most of this year’s nominated films, so I didn’t have much stake in Sunday night’s ceremony.

I’m so out of step with the times that I even had to look up who Seth MacFarlane was.

If I had been at home, I probably would have turned the TV way down or even off, sat down at my desktop computer, turned on some music, and done some reading or writing or even just random surfing, with one eye on the snark on Twitter.

But I was up in Kentucky visiting my folks, with minimal technology and away from my usual diversions, so I ended up watching pretty much the whole ceremony.

At first I thought MacFarlane was doing a pretty good job, and I liked the can-he-or-can’t-he-be-a-good-Oscar-host premise that eventually led to William Shatner’s appearance and to the inexpert but perfectly pleasant dance routines with the likes of Joseph Gordon Levitt, Daniel Radcliffe, Charlize Theron, and Channing Tatum (yes, I knew who they all were without having to look them up).

But as those routines dragged, I started getting slightly irritated by the sheer minutes devoted to them.

By the time MacFarlane’s character Ted made a series of unfunny jokes about Jews in Hollywood, I was wondering if the whole ceremony was slipping into lame obnoxiousness. That feeling was intensified when a guy in SS uniform (really?) quoted a line from The Sound of Music just before Christopher Plummer appeared on stage.

I won’t pretend to be offended by any of that, but the jokes just seemed off key.

Plummer’s appearance was just one of the moments that struck me as more be in keeping with the history of the Academy Awards. Ditto for Barbra Streisand’s tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, for Adele’s performance of “Skyfall”, for Meryl Streep, for Dustin Hoffman and Charlize Theron presenting an award together.

And there were some good acceptance speeches too.

But then we kept coming back to MacFarlane, who looked to me like a cross between a smirking Peter Brady and an old school Sears Roebuck catalog model.

I thought the “boob song” was clever, but I couldn’t help wondering how it would have gone over if we’d had a similar song about male actors who’ve appeared nude.

If we had only had the boob song or the Jew jokes or the snide gay references or the Nazi or the leering talk about the Flying Nun, perhaps all would have been well. But MacFarlane’s banal banter just kept accumulating, and he began to seem more and more like that irritating kid in the back of the classroom who lies to the substitute teacher just because he can.

I have no idea if the slowly coarsening context of the show itself contributed to The Onion’s bad decision to use the c-word in a tweet to describe Beasts of the Southern Wild star and best actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis. Wallis is 9 years old.

I used to find the c-word one of the few remaining off-limits insults in our culture, but after reading novels like Trainspotting and getting used to other cultures’ use of the word, I’m a lot less shocked by its use when I hear it.

But, really, to describe a 9 year old? Why not just call her, you know, a “brat”?

The Onion deleted the offending tweet and has apologized to Wallis. My guess is that The Onion social media folks consciously or unconsciously thought they had to go pretty far over the top to truly parody McFarlane. For an interesting news report on The Onion controversy, there’s plenty of background in this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald.

As for the awards themselves, it was a good year for relatively high-minded films. Just consider the subjects of those that captured at least one big award: Argo, Lincoln, Amour, The Life of Pi, Django Unchained, and Silver Linings Playbook. Could moviemaking and movie audiences be much more sophisticated than ABC and MacFarlane presume?

Of course, the ceremony had wildly high ratings, which some might credit MacFarlane for.

I hope not.