The Oscars are Hollywood's biggest night. Is it worth tuning in, or should you tune them out?

A writer who loves everything about awards season and a writer who rolls her eyes at it make their cases.

The Oscars are Hollywood's biggest night. Is it worth tuning in, or should you tune them out?

A writer who loves everything about awards season and a writer who rolls her eyes at it make their cases.

April 23, 2021

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The shows are just fan service at its glitziest finest

Maybe my love of Oscars drama is old school, but reading gossip amid fashion spreads in service of a popularity contest is good entertainment.

By Ani Bundel

The Academy Awards will finally bring the 2020 movie year to a close Sunday night — far later in the year than ever before — and the drama of who will win is the most unpredictable in years. 

Unfortunately, without the usual “awards season” to accompany the parade of awards shows that ends with the Oscars, it's not nearly as dramatic or fun as it should be.

What, you might ask, is “awards season”? It's everything designed to influence the voters, besides the film festivals and special screenings. It’s the gossip we all consume: the flattering (or not so flattering) articles on the people behind the films in trade magazines, the sudden "shocking" exposés that drop at strategic voting times that might just undermine a front-runner in the eyes of Academy voters, and the perfect quotes in interviews, like “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho negging Oscars voters by informing them their little show is just a local celebration until they handed him a statue. 

It’s also the red-carpet pictures from the nominated films’ worldwide premieres, the fashion spreads in well-timed magazine issues, the cover stories where a nominee hoping to get over that Oscar hump bares all (or at least some) for an adoring public and hopefully some soft-hearted voters.

It's everything that everyone in Hollywood does to make sure the Academy voters know you want that statue without being too obvious about how much you want it. In short, it is the real performance of an actor’s lifetime.

And, because of the pandemic, there was far too little of it this year. 

It won’t last: An avalanche of films held back during the pandemic will arrive this fall, competing for Academy votes in the most cutthroat competition the film business may ever see. It’ll kick the preseason into overdrive — and I’m all here for the gossip mills to start churning again. I breathlessly await the return of the behind-the-scenes tell-alls, the gorgeous gowns and the cattiest quotes. The Oscars may never award itself best drama, but I certainly do.

The worst part is that this should have been the most interesting Oscar race in decades. With many of the usual suspects waiting out the pandemic to return to screens, a very different slate of actors, directors and films wound up nominated than anyone would have predicted last February and led to the most historically diverse slates of nominees in several categories. Moreover, everything is up in the air this year, which would normally be an opportunity for an entirely new set of A-listers to duke it out for their big chance at glory. 

But sadly, there are no red carpets, and there are Zoom calls instead of press conferences. It’s hard to see how this won’t be (yet again) the lowest-rated Oscars in history.

It could be that I’m in the minority in my love for the Oscar-adjacent drama. The so-called problem of how much politicking for the Oscar is too much has been one Hollywood has outwardly struggled with for decades. In the last 20 years, it's given rise to the publicly pervasive view that the performances to get Oscars often outweigh the ones for which the Oscars are awarded. 

And so, ever since Harvey Weinstein waged a campaign so successful for "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999 that it beat out Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" for best picture at the Academy Awards, there have been movements to shorten the “awards season” to limit campaigning. 

The current season begins with the Venice and Toronto film festivals at the end of August and ends with Oscar gold. In between, there are various other festivals and awards, including the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the BAFTAs and the film critics associations, some of which are considered bellwethers and others of which are not. All told, when the Oscars were scheduled for April, it meant seven-plus months of campaigning for a nomination and then a win.

In 2003, the first move was made to shorten that schedule by moving the Oscars to the end of February; a more recent effort put last year's Oscars in the second weekend of February. That left but a single weekend between the Oscars and a suddenly very packed January, as every group giving out awards rushed to get their ceremonies in before they became irrelevant.

That the shortest awards season ever was then followed by this year's most extended and least traditional is the stuff great dramas are normally made of. Hollywood wanted the campaigning and schmoozefests to stop? The pandemic provided. 

But the sudden quiet showed how much fans actually played a role. Like the WWE attempting to perform in a silent stadium, awards-bait movies without all the gossip, magazine spreads and interviews about anything-but-the-movie that normally accompany their rollouts to get us interested turn out to be nothing more than a very erudite two hours of entertainment.

There’s been a little. (Did you know best director nominee Emerald Fennell turned 18 once?) But it wasn’t quite enough. We want a little meaningless drama with our dramas — and almost every year, the Oscars provides.

Ani Bundel is a cultural critic who has been writing regularly since 2010. Her work can also be found at Elite Daily and WETA's Telly Visions where she also co-hosts "Telly Visions: The Podcast." Follow her on Twitter at @anibundel.

Stop letting out-of-touch elites tell us what's 'best'

Viewers only watch for the entertainment value anyway, which has been declining. So up the "wow" factor and let the self-congratulations go.

By Maura Johnston

Awards shows have become their own cultural slog over the last 10 years. I often view them with a mix of dread and eye-rolling: Here come the artists being self-important; here come the "ironic" in-jokes about the entertainment business' foibles; here come the forehead slaps that accompany usual suspects winning again and again.

But now in 2021, we need to ask: Does the world really need more reminders that the same people are still in charge, even if they're festooned in pretty dresses and celebrity glitz? Maybe it's even time to ditch the trophies for a straightforward fashion show so viewers can get the collective brain massage they're in it for, at least.

Still, while I'm not a fan of them in general, I'm not saying that all awards shows should go away. Even the most self-obsessed artists sometimes need the encouragement of their peers; entertainment editors need the (weeks and weeks of) content offered by winners-and-losers lists; social media users need the occasional opportunity to break from sniping at one another to ooh and aah over dresses and suits. And, perhaps most importantly, TV executives need the guaranteed eyeballs. 

As it happens, I actually enjoyed the Grammys this year — and I don't think it was only because of my pandemic brain. "Music's biggest night," as it proclaims itself, had become as bad as any other show, seeming self-important, dated and bloated in a way that represented all of the music business' worst indulgences. But the 2021 show — while not perfect, particularly when it came to who won — was a breeze to watch in large part because the producers had to work with the limitations that forced them to strip down the pomp of previous years.

It made me realize that part of the problem is they all — especially the most iconic award shows — need a bit of a refresh and could even take some cues from the restrictions wrought by the pandemic. 

First, it's time to make the award presentations more casual. One reason that the Grammys this year worked so well was the setup: Trophies were handed out in a tented area resembling a charity gala just outside Los Angeles' Staples Center and nominees rotated in and out of that area during the course of the night, allowing for actual surprises (Beyoncé) for those watching at home, while the concert went on inside. (The situation likely alleviated any anxiety viewers might have over watching large maskless gatherings.) The stripped-down vibe of the portion of the night that is the least fun to actually watch ended up making it more enjoyable.

Also, it's long past time for the movie and television shows to give viewers more context about the nominees. In the age of HBO Max handling major movie premieres, CBC-turned-Netflix's "Schitt's Creek" sweeping the Emmys and services like Peacock, Paramount+ and Hulu releasing original content on a weekly basis, it's impossible for even professionals to keep up with every release. That makes the good stuff not only harder to find but more difficult to get around to watching. 

The Grammys helped circumvent this problem by getting rid of the self-conscious "moments" it had previously tried to curate through strange collaborations and talent contests. Instead, it just let musicians focus on performing their songs — which let viewers hear the songs for themselves and learn a little about the nominees. Obviously, that's harder to do for movies and television shows, but a 45-second clip of one over-acted scene, or a montage from a series or movie, doesn't let anyone understand why something was nominated, let alone why it won.

The Oscars should also take a cue from its red carpet and engage in a little picture-in-picture action. Since many of the awards are currently relegated to off-camera ceremonies, bring them back to the broadcast fold — and give the shows' very lucrative commercials a few more guaranteed eyeballs — by handing them out during the ad breaks via picture-in-picture presentation. Televisions (and streaming platforms) these days can certainly handle it — and producers could even throw in a few Easter eggs for people to freak out over on social media.

Finally, Hollywood really needs to just rethink what makes something the "best." The recent news about the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — who sent out an email insulting Black Lives Matter to members of the Golden-Globes-presenting organization earlier this week — shines a harsh light on the shortcomings of that awards-presenting body. But really, every awards' nomination announcement has head-scratch-worthy moments when a slate of honorees proves that the people who devised it are rather small-minded. That ill-advised email only gives explanation for some of the puzzlement.

But then again, maybe the folly comes in a group of elites trying to anoint certain cultural artifacts the "best" at all, when the reality is that such a designation is based in old ideas of hierarchies and quality. Determining what is truly the best in a really big, diverse world is pretty much an impossibility. Maybe the only reason the Grammys were so enjoyable this year was because it focused on entertaining viewers rather than awarding artists — and if the Oscars could do the same, people might find a reason to watch again.

Maura Johnston is a writer and editor who teaches at Boston College. She has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time, Billboard and Rolling Stone. Follow her on Twitter at @maura.

This is a recurring series from @NBCNewsThink.