By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
Oscars fans have seen a lot over the years, but this may be the first time they've ever seen a host use the awards to audition for his own variety show.
That was what Seth MacFarlane was doing on ABC's Oscar broadcast Sunday, wasn't it? Because it's hard to imagine just what else he might have had in mind with that oddly awkward mix of monologue and music that opened the show and set the evening's why-am-I-here? tone.
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Give this to MacFarlane: He threw everything he had at it. He dressed up like The Flying Nun. He played with sock puppets. He radiated charm, if not cool. And, of course, he told jokes, a tad nervously, perhaps, but he did manage to land a fair number of them. He even got Tommy Lee Jones to laugh at a joke about getting Tommy Lee Jones to laugh, which has to count for something. Oh, and he sang and danced. A lot.
He started with a number about seeing stars' breasts in movies that was meant to represent the kind of "wild, crazy and tasteless" stunt folks were supposedly afraid the man behind Family Guy might do, and was, unfortunately, less wild, crazy or tasteless than it needed to be. He then moved into more standard production numbers that fell somewhere in between Billy Crystal's Oscars classics and something you might have seen on The Andy Williams Show. It's as if he saw the Oscar assignment as his last, best chance to revive vaudeville.
What MacFarlane seemed to forget was that the job at hand involved more than just performing, and was about more than just his performance. One longed for him to drop the meta-jokes about the fear that he'd be an inappropriate host and get on with the job of actually hosting, which means keeping the train running, making your guests comfortable, and making the evening more about them than you.
Awash in self-indulgence, neither he nor his 3-hour-and-35-minute show ever seemed to hit a comfortable, confident stride, which is a shame, because the broadcast had a lot of entertainment to offer. Indeed, as with the Grammys, the awards themselves sometimes seemed to be an afterthought.
Heaven knows the show seemed to be in no particular hurry to get to them.
Instead, we got a rousing performance from Shirley Bassey in an otherwise truncated and sadly Bondless salute to James Bond. There was a long tribute to current movie musicals that reminded people of how well Jennifer Hudson sings, while convincing anyone who skipped Les Misérables that they were right to do so.
We got to see a surprise appearance by Michelle Obama, and a rare appearance by Adele, always a welcome event even if the Skyfall theme can't lay a finger on Goldfinger. And to cap the evening, there was an even rarer TV appearance by Barbra Streisand, a coup so impressive you wonder why the show rushed away from it to a commercial without letting us see the audience's reaction.
To be fair, putting on the Oscars is no easy task, and hosting it has become nearly impossible. We want the show to move along while occasionally moving us. We want the host to be funny while maintaining some sense of the occasion. In neither case did we fully get our wish.
Still, if MacFarlane's act was often flat and self-conscious, he did at least put obvious thought and effort into it. That's more than can be said for, say, James Franco, just in case MacFarlane really is worried that the "Worst Host Ever" joke headline he put on screen might actually come true. "Best ever" may be out of reach, too. But hey, there's always that shot at The Seth MacFarlane Show.