NEW YORK - To borrow from an Oscars cliche, "It's an honor just to be nominated." Given that the writers strike almost canceled this year's show, viewers might have felt it was enough just to have a full-fledged Oscarcast to watch.
Or maybe not.
The evening was plenty elegant. The stage setting was handsome. The orchestra sounded full and lush. Everyone behaved.
On the other hand, this three-hour-and-20-minute affair had an underwhelming feel that left the clear impression it was put together on the fly. Host Jon Stewart was strong, but there were no eye-popping production treats (unless you count the brief computer-animated opening sequence, which viewers might have mistaken for a UPS commercial). No outrageous comedy bits.
Maybe the broadcast was also hobbled by the lack of suspense in the major categories. Or by five dull performances of the best song nominees, which did little to energize the show.
No wonder "The 80th Annual Academy Awards" took every chance to punch things up by looking backward.
There were loads of film montages of past Oscar highlights. Jack Nicholson stepped up to the podium to recite a windy, all-too-scripted introduction to a clip-reel rundown of all 79 past Best Picture winners. Oscar meets Cliffs Notes. Whew.
"Had the writers strike continued," warned Stewart, "they would have had to pad the show with even MORE montages." Then he slyly offered "a brief taste of what your four-hour, writer-less Oscars would have looked like," such as an Oscar salute "to binoculars and periscopes." (Jimmy Stewart peering out his apartment in "Rear Window," Jodie Foster under night-vision scrutiny in "Silence of the Lambs," etc.)
"Thank God we didn't have to show that," said a deadpan Stewart after it was shown. But he wasn't really kidding. This was a glimpse of the producers' luckily unnecessary Plan B.
Stewart, back for a second turn as host, was vastly improved from his 2006 appearance. He proved equal to the challenge posed by Oscarcast's quick turnaround. His crash-deadline material worked. And even when it didn't, he was genial, relaxed, and seemed utterly at home. His manner suggested that, before the show even started, the hard part was over: settling the strike.
"You're here! You're actually here," he greeted the glitterati in the Kodak Theatre, as if to his living room. "The town was torn apart by a bitter writers strike, but I'm happy to say that the fight is over. So, tonight, welcome to the makeup sex."
Stewart, whose regular gig is anchoring Comedy Central's fake newscast "The Daily Show," reminded viewers that "Oscar is 80 this year — which makes him automatically the front-runner for the Republican nomination."
And he made frequent cracks about the movies, at one point noting with approval this year's wide range of nominees.
"Even `Norbit' got a nomination, which I think is great," Stewart said. "Too often, the academy ignores movies that aren't good."
Stewart breathed life into a show you otherwise could have easily written off. Good thing he was part of Plan A.