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In the End, the Oscars Got the Viral Moment It Desperately Wanted

Facing another year of all-time-low ratings, something big needed to happen at the Academy Awards. But if there was any key takeaway from Sunday night, it’s to be careful what you wish for—you might just get it.

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From the start, this year’s Oscars ceremony was reverse-engineered to produce big, unmissable moments. To avoid last year’s ratings catastrophe, in which the pandemic and an experimental broadcast sunk ratings to an all-time low, producer Will Packer took drastic steps on behalf of the Academy and its presenting partner, ABC. Much to the chagrin of members, at least one of whom resigned in protest, eight categories—including Best Film Editing, Sound, and Production Design, as well as all three short film awards—were cut from the live broadcast, instead presented in an hourlong preshow and edited into the main event. To replace them, Packer and his team organized a slew of performances and high-profile reunions, from a performance of Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” with a guest verse from Megan Thee Stallion to the cast of Pulp Fiction presenting Best Actor.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday night’s awards, the prevailing mood was one of desperation. ABC is set to broadcast the Oscars until 2028, and to maximize the value of its investment, it would try anything to recapture an era when live TV could take hold of the zeitgeist. (2020 may have been a world-historical anomaly for many reasons, but the prevailing trend in award show ratings has been a negative slope for years.) Celebrating multiple movie anniversaries per hour? Call Liza Minnelli and Rosie Perez! Bringing on three hosts after years of having none? The more the merrier! Having a trio of pro athletes introduce a James Bond tribute? Sure, they’re all “game changers”—whatever that means! A proposed cameo by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine never materialized, but the fact that it even came up in conversation spoke volumes.

None of these choices seemed likely to produce true water-cooler chat—and on the whole, they didn’t. But in the end, the Oscars did get a huge, jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing clip of television. It just wasn’t one the producers could have possibly planned for.

In retrospect, the Oscars should’ve learned from their own recent history. Prior to this weekend, the most memorable Oscars development of the past half decade was The Great Best Picture Mishap of 2017, in which presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly gave the top prize to La La Land when it was rightfully Moonlight’s, a flub that was corrected then and there on live TV. Before that, it was the scandal surrounding #OscarsSoWhite. These days, when the Oscars break out of the increasingly small, award-obsessed bubble that tracks their every move, it’s usually for unflattering reasons. In other words: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

If you’re clicking on an article about the 2022 Oscars, you’re probably aware that Twitter wasn’t set aflame by the exclusive preview of Pixar’s Lightyear, nor the souped-up, dancified version of the “In Memoriam” montage. Instead, it was when presenter Chris Rock made what seemed to be a lighthearted joke about a bareheaded Jada Pinkett Smith starring in G.I. Jane 2. The actor’s husband, nominee and eventual winner Will Smith, then walked onstage, slapped Rock, and shouted at the comedian to “keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.” To viewers tuning in live on American television, the incident played out largely on mute, with choppy cuts between a stunned Rock and a livid Smith. Any context had to be gleaned in bits and pieces from uncensored international feeds or eyewitnesses in the room—until Smith’s raw, tearful, tense acceptance speech, in which he apologized to the Academy and quoted his friend and fellow nominee Denzel Washington: “At your highest moments, be careful, that’s when the Devil comes for you.”

I don’t envy the producers forced to navigate the space between Smith’s outburst and his presumptive, then actual, win. Do you eject one of the biggest movie stars on the planet for openly assaulting your talent on air? Or do you simply try to push on and ignore the elephant in the room, a Herculean feat that’s doomed to fail? The show opted for the latter, pressing ahead with activities as scheduled. To those just dropping by for the final moments, the only clues something was amiss were Anthony Hopkins’s quiet dignity (“What more can be said? Let’s have peace and love and quiet”) or Amy Schumer’s knowing smirk (“I’ve been getting out of that Spider-Man costume. Did I miss anything?”). But even when the show must go on, pushing the audience to pretend like nothing happened is an impossible ask.

As soon as Smith landed his blow, theories began to proliferate about why Rock’s remark set him off when, say, Regina Hall’s joke about his open marriage did not. Pinkett Smith’s medical history came up; so did Rock’s past jokes at her expense play a role. Naturally, some cynics even assumed the confrontation was staged, fires fanned by Packer’s own winking tweets. But if the Oscars were savvy enough to engineer this outcome organically, it’s unlikely they’d be in their current state of existential crisis. In the end, the 94th Academy Awards became a cautionary tale: It’s still possible to have gripping, can’t-look-away live TV—but rarely in a way one can choreograph in advance, or play entirely to one’s advantage.

This may go down as the most eventful Oscars in recent memory. It will not, however, go down as one of the best-produced. Before Smith’s actions sucked up all the oxygen in the Dolby Theatre, there were a few highlights: Schumer’s monologue taking gleeful jabs at Being the Ricardos and Don’t Look Up; the aforementioned Hall bit, which allowed the Scary Movie star to be as horny as the national post-lockdown mood. But for every efficient choice like cutting the introductions to individual Best Picture nominees, there were misguided moves that lost far more than they gained. The awkwardly inserted preshow awards appeared to teleport winners to the stage while cutting some, like Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye director Aneil Karia, out entirely. And the show still ran over three and a half hours, making the disrespect to the honorees as unnecessary as it was egregious.

The buzziness of a given Oscars is rarely proportional to the smoothness of its operation. In fact, the reverse may be true, a takeaway with frustratingly few applications for an Academy still at sea. You can’t bet on an A-lister losing control in a way that puts his most intimate relationships on disarmingly open display, nor would you want to. All you can do is accept that a huge happening isn’t always going to be a straightforward blessing and brace yourself accordingly. Rather than applauding Packer and his colleagues’ genius at putting together a reprise of White Men Can’t Jump, we’ll spend the week debating their grace and/or ineptitude under pressure. Sometimes the headlines you frantically chase aren’t the ones you get.