The Oscars aren't trying to be cool anymore, and maybe that's for the best. Sunday's 2023 Academy Awards show was thoroughly conventional in tone and structure: Jimmy Kimmel gave a monologue calibrated to amuse without offending, and while Elizabeth Banks stumbled on her way to present with a mute co-presenter in an enormous "Cocaine Bear" costume, and Lady Gaga washed off all her makeup to perform the Oscar-nominated song she wrote for "Top Gun: Maverick," calling it "deeply personal," and David Byrne wore hot dog fingers, no one did anything unexpected. One result of that hyper-scripted format was a refreshing looseness among the winners, many of whom wept during speeches that were - to this jaded viewer's surprise - genuinely rewarding to watch.
That return to form wasn't just a reaction to "the slap" last year, as it's come to be called. For years, the bloated awards show fought the twin specters of dwindling ratings and aging viewership by trying, quite lamely, to innovate. Sometimes that meant bringing in edgier hosts (like Seth MacFarlane) or forcing viewers to watch awkward reality shows in which Anne Hathaway (for instance) tried to prod her co-host, James Franco, to life onstage. In 2019, when Kevin Hart refused to apologize for old homophobic jokes after he was announced as that year's host, the Academy gave up: It went with no host at all, a pattern that held through 2021. That didn't work either - ratings cratered, no thanks to the pandemic - and while Will Smith's infamous assault on Chris Rock catapulted the show back into headlines, it wasn't the kind of notoriety the academy hoped for.