On January 1, hundreds of women in Hollywood, including Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, America Ferrera, and Eva Longoria, launched Time’s Up, the $15 million-and-counting initiative to combat workplace sexual harassment. The 75th annual Golden Globes were the first major televised awards show to follow the high-profile launch, which dominated the news cycle for several days beforehand; the Golden Globes were also a uniquely ill-suited platform for discussing issues like those Time’s Up seeks to address. A boozy banquet hosted by a small, shadowy crew of foreign journalists, the Globes have a long-standing reputation for low-stakes drunken antics. How would such a mood square with the tone that had been forced upon this particular Globes, now kicking off an awards season already defined by #MeToo?
In advance of Sunday’s broadcast, Time’s Up called on Globes attendees to wear black in solidarity with the fledgling movement. (Male guests, for whom black was already the default mode of dress, wore Time’s Up pins in additional solidarity.) Meanwhile, host-to-be Seth Meyers spent his preshow press tour signaling his intention to build on the reputation for topical humor he’s honed at his NBC series Late Night with Seth Meyers. Current events were definitely on the menu, and not a moment too soon. Difficult as it might be to make comedy out of slow-motion tragedy, ignoring the headlines simply wasn’t an option.
What Meyers ended up doing with the Globes won’t go down in the history books with the legendarily scathing likes of his former coworkers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. But not standing out almost seemed to be the point of Meyers’s performance, particularly compared with the female winners and presenters who delivered the evening’s crescendos. Meyers smartly wrote that inevitability into his opening monologue, modifying his signature segment, Jokes Seth Can’t Say, with celebrities subbing in for his own writers. Jessica Chastain, Billy Eichner, Issa Rae, Hong Chau, and Poehler each got their crack at reading Hollywood the riot act; Poehler even got to go meta with it, facetiously calling Meyers out for condescension before the internet could.
The rest of Meyers’s monologue served to highlight why Jokes Seth Can’t Tell was such a winning strategy. The rhythmic scroll of one-liners Meyers and his writing staff came up with were fine enough, but they couldn’t and didn’t live up to the impossible standard of ripping an industry apart while also celebrating its successes. The jokes that landed felt oddly cookie-cutter, like a lukewarm observation about how the only words that could anger our president more than “Hollywood Foreign Press” are a “Hillary Mexico Salad” consortium. The ones that should have landed instead revealed the tightrope Meyers was walking, though he didn’t always show it: an impish bit about Harvey Weinstein becoming the first person to ever be booed during an In Memoriam montage got uneasy, wounded gasps.
Mostly, Meyers’s efforts felt too soon and out of place, both circumstances that were beyond the host’s control. The easy windup-punchline formula of a good, ol’-fashioned showbiz roast naturally didn’t fit a reality where show business—or at least parts of it—is suddenly allied with farmworkers and activists in a struggle that goes far beyond a few statues.
Almost every single honoree subsequently attempted to link their work to the outside world, with varying levels of plausibility and success. I, Tonya was framed by star Allison Janney as a movie about class and the media; Darkest Hour by Gary Oldman as a testament to the power of words.
In the end, Meyers’s opening gimmick proved prophetic: The night did belong to those qualified to speak by personal experience. Laura Dern offered an early contender for speech of the night by turning her signature wide-open empathy to the topic at hand, asking her colleagues to help build a world where “speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new North Star.” (Dern also startled me by calling for restorative justice, bringing a relatively obscure term for prioritizing reparation over retribution to national TV.) Elisabeth Moss read aloud and riffed on a quote from Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood about women’s marginalization, as grotesquely evergreen as the novel itself.
But of course, Cecil B. DeMille Award winner Oprah Winfrey embodied the Globes’ best-case scenario. The awkward, uneven two hours and 50 minutes that surrounded her acceptance speech became penance for the 10 it transfixed the room. Oprah called attention to her status as the only black woman ever to win the Globes’ honor for career achievement; eulogized Recy Taylor, a victim of racist sexual violence who died just 10 days ago; and promised a new day with all the authority she had accumulated in decades as America’s trusted TV guru.
The speech was magnificent, but it was an outlier. Oprah didn’t have to run the show, so she was free to steal it; she didn’t have to represent any single project, so she was free to rise above the baser obligations of promotion and set her sights on something larger. All the reasons she succeeded, in other words, called attention to why most of this year’s Golden Globes was all but doomed to fail. When only Oprah is capable of rising to a moment, it’s hard to fault anyone else for falling short.