IIt was quite a move for the Oscars to land a rare performance from Beyoncé, singing her nominated song from King Richard on the same Compton tennis courts where Venus and Serena Williams got their start. But the fact that the bright production number, featuring dozens of musicians and dancers shrouded in neon a chartreuse of tennis balls, opened the telecast meant you had to wonder: an act that followed Beyoncé could- does it have the same impact?
Well, one did, but not in the way anyone involved in the show’s production had expected. Long before the ceremony was over, it was clear that the 94th Academy Awards would be remembered as the year Will Smith jumped onstage to slap Chris Rock for making a tasteless joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. then won top acting honors for his role in, yes, King Richard, and accepting the award with a speech in which he rambled disconcertingly about love and family. The entertainment media will surely spend the coming week deciding how to apportion blame between Smith, Rock, and various loosely defined societal forces, such as toxic masculinity. But since this is a review of the TV show as a whole, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how the shock of Smith’s interruption was compounded by the feeling of sleep and promotion Sunday Oscars during the two-hour gap between Beyoncé and the slap.
It wasn’t supposed to be so boring. I struggle to remember the last year when the Oscars weren’t mired in controversy, from #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale to the Kevin Hart saga that led to three years without a host and the men’s show accused of sexual misconduct “support” Time’s Up. But the prospect of 2022 was controversial even by that standard. other broadcast news caused a backlash. Fan favorite awards decided by Twitter and celebrity appearances that had nothing to do with the movies, like DJ Khaled and Tony Hawk? It smelt of futile submission to an 18-34 demographic that will never return to linear television, let alone award shows. And that’s exactly what it was. Displaced presenters were almost uniformly awkward, and the top 5 crowdsourced lists were dominated by superhero fandoms. Meanwhile, producer Will Packer’s decision to pre-record certain categories earlier in the evening, in a misguided attempt to move the series forward, proved unsuccessful. This year’s show ended up being even longer than its predecessor, breaking the 11:30 (ET) mark in the middle of the Smith-Rock side show.
American singer-songwriter Beyonce performs during the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)
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Read more: Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the Oscars after a joke about his wife Jada
The hosts should have been able to riff on those missteps, as well as the many debates that swirled around the nominees: Was it Licorice Pizza rightly critical of the racism it portrays? Has been Don’t look up an insightful allegory of climate change or excruciatingly smug? Was the big winner of the evening CODA a moving movie about a hearing girl raised by a deaf family, or did he relegate these deaf characters to accessories in its history? Instead, though I found Hall’s thirsty act a winner and Schumer was wise to keep his engagement with Smith’s ordeal to a minimum (“I’m stepping out of that Spider-Man suit, got- Am I missing something?”), they skimmed the surface, almost always sinning towards uncontroversial humor. Aaron Sorkin is too serious, Lady Gaga and Jared Leto made goofy accents for Gucci HouseLeonardo DiCaprio is aging but his girlfriends are still the same age. We had heard better versions of these jokes before.
Beyoncé aside, the highlights were the heartfelt acceptance speeches of Hollywood’s A-list newcomers, from Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur shouting the theater world deaf to Best Supporting Actress Ariana DeBose speaking at how proud she was to represent her communities as an “open, queer, Latina woman of color who found her strength through art. In a subtle, probably unintended rebuttal to the outburst of machismo that immediately preceded her victory in the best documentary feature, for soul summer, Questlove broke down in tears while talking about her late father. None of the winners humiliated themselves by hogging the mic or pushing weird political agendas. (Best Director award-winning Jane Campion, always an impromptu speaker, seemed to be on her best behavior after having to apologize for scorning the Williams sisters at the Critics Choice Awards — another controversy Sunday’s hosts gave wide prominence.)
Unfortunately, those pure moments were overshadowed by a deluge of Disney marketing. When you remember that megacorp not only owns ABC, the network that aired the ceremony, but also Hulu, Marvel, Pixar, and more, then the whole pre-Smith night starts to feel like one big ad. Commercial breaks overflowed with outlets for the Disney empire’s movies, TV shows and platforms. It was kinda nasty, I thought, to follow Kotsur’s win with a video of Chris Evans congratulating him, then cut straight to a promo clip for his next toy story spin off, Light year. When BTS appeared in a video about Disney and Pixar musicals, was it an advertisement or part of the entertainment? It was almost as if Disney was trying to distract from the media maelstrom surrounding its failed response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill by bombarding viewers with tantalizing images of its content.
Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall host the 94th Academy Awards
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Read more: The best, worst and craziest moments from the 2022 Oscars
I don’t think the promotional tone is entirely unrelated to the blandness of the scripted parts of the broadcast. For most brands, especially those as big, broad and family-oriented as Disney, there’s no point in risking an association with anything provocative or controversial. The jokes therefore had to be tamed. The stage banter had to remain superficial. And if the presenters could be grouped together for the benefit of ABC and its parent company, like the trio of Disney princesses past and future, so much the better.
Of course, Will Smith broke that veneer, in a bizarre altercation made all the more confusing by the broadcaster’s choice to cut the delayed sound as the actor jumped onto the stage, slapped Chris Rock and yelled at him to keep the name of Smith’s wife out of his mouth. (A Australian television uncensored version quickly made the rounds on Twitter.) And while the ceremony he interrupted was far from an Oscar for the ages, the show that began with his outburst and continued, soon after, with his Best Actor acceptance speech was no improvement.
Whether his anger was justified or not, Smith eclipsed every award and segment that followed Rock’s presentation. Questlove’s Victory, The Godfather‘s 50th anniversary, an In Memoriam segment that paid tribute to lost legends like Sidney Poitier and Betty White – they were all crushed by a dispute between two guys who really should have waited to settle their differences backstage. Who could focus on Jamie Lee Curtis snuggling up an adorable pup when an extremely famous man just punched another extremely famous man on live TV?
Smith seemed to be in real pain, on the catwalk, as he connected his alarming attempt to defend Pinkett Smith with the character of his character Richard Williams. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy dad,” he said. “Love will make you do crazy things.” There’s almost certainly more to this story than those of us outside Smith and Rock’s trusted circles will ever know. And to his credit, he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees in his speech. But by then, the damage was done. Numerous trophies were handed out on Sunday as millions of dollars worth of promotional content filled our screens. But with even the most significant and heartening rewards reduced to footnotes, this final hour was not worth celebrating.
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