Did A Little Class Improve The Oscars?

Saturday, 22 Mar 2014, 6:00:00 AM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

“Class: excellence or elegance, especially in dress, design, or behavior.” It is this definition I would like to apply to some recent developments in TV content, where lately I’m observing that a little class seems to be slowly creeping back into the thinking and execution of some of the stuff we watch on television.

Unlike many voices heard in the days after this year’s Oscar broadcast, our household observed that fusing Ellen DeGeneres’ dry and subtle wit with a more elegant mentality toward the entire affair made the Oscar show more enjoyable to watch.

DeGeneres didn’t find it necessary to ‘score’ with a joke when a lighter touch would work, the winners appeared to have prepared for their speeches, and even the music segments seemed to reflect an attempt to make those portions more involving and less shiny and brash.

The result: An estimated 43 million people watched the Academy Awards, the most-watched audience for the show in a decade and most popular entertainment event on television since the “Friends” finale in 2004, according the Associated Press.

Again, our household found this year’s Oscar’s classy and involving, especially the gags aimed at the one percent profile of the crowd in the theater.

Having ordered pizzas, DeGeneres meekly offered that she didn’t have any money. Then she turned to the front rows filled with some of the richest pretty faces on earth and wondered, “Has anybody got any money?” When she cracked to that same audience “Let’s try and make this about you…” she had us, completely.

Yet Tim Goodman, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, saw it much differently.

Goodman wrote that “as a television event, this year’s Oscar’s was more like an endurance test. It was a turgid affair, badly directed, poorly produced and featuring and endless string of either tired or wince-inducing moments by DeGeneres, who, by the last 30 minutes, seemed to have given up entirely.”

Come on, Tim!

The length of the show and a desire to keep things moving in the last hour are hardly Ellen’s fault.

What can definitely be attributed to the producers and DeGeneres was a tone that seemed to be in large part an apology for 2013’s mistakes with host Seth McFarlane. Even McFarlane had praise for DeGeneres this year.

One can ‘get’ the idea that the Oscars would try to lose some stodginess with a shot involving someone like McFarlane. But do Ellen’s better numbers indicate that something is afoot with television in general?

Over the last five years or so, you could argue that a lack of class was now a viable ‘hook’ for TV content.

Reality shows, the often laughable softening of CNN, an uptick in visceral violence in cable series, coarsening of language on late night shows and sitcoms… if you have children, you likely don’t need me to lengthen this list.

By the time a character on “Duck Dynasty” demonstrated his real-life backwards thinking in a magazine interview, we were uncertain whether the comments were real or just some sort of promotion for the series. And these aspects of TV content don’t appear to be going away soon.

And yet… am I being too hopeful in observing that NBC’s recent shift of Jimmy Fallon into “The Tonight Show” and Seth Meyers taking over “Late Night” have brought two new islands of civility and intelligence to our home screens?

As a former stand-up comic, I exult in the effort at sharper comedy going into Meyers’ monologues and desk pieces.

The recent debut of “Cosmos” on FOX doesn’t mitigate the damage FOX News is doing to our national dialogue, but the thoughtful intelligence of the series at least signals that television hasn’t completely abandoned class.

Now, we wait for the ratings.

For a long time now, there have been assumptions about television that haven’t always proven true: That it takes responsibility for what reaches our children’s eyes, that it reflects us at our best at least as often as it does our worst, or even that a half-hour ‘family’ comedy would avoid discussion of human genitalia and bathroom activity when there are so many other things to write jokes about.

This comes way before any carping about the softening of the news and information we need to rationally run our democracy, instead getting cooking segments and previews of “Swimsuit Editions” in magazines.

But TV doesn’t officially have that many obligations, period. Then there’s the contradiction of often wanting content to be enlightening or good for us in some way, yet feasting on new shows that we find compelling because of graphic violence, sex, drug use and other degrading human behaviors.

Still, while TV may not need a pat on the back, let’s at least acknowledge that there might be an effort afoot to bring some class back into our TV content. It’s not about what Ellen’s “pizza bit” was; it’s more about what it wasn’t.

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