No one can say that Jimmy Kimmel didn't have plenty of material to work with.
As the 90th Academy Awards rolled out its red carpet Sunday night – absent the all-black protest ensembles from this January's Golden Globes but boasting quasi-pariah Ryan Seacrest – it seemed that the entire globe had its gaze fixed upon Hollywood and its toxic dream factory. The movie industry generally likes to think that the world revolves around it, but this year, that was actually true – and for all the wrong reasons.
From the moment The New York Times and New Yorker published their investigations into awards-season kingpin Harvey Weinstein this past fall, the 2018 Oscars were destined to become ground zero for serious political and cultural outrage. Not just #MeToo and #TimesUp, but also the still distressingly relevant #OscarsSoWhite, a talking point that hasn't gone anywhere.
And what did Oscars host Mr. Kimmel offer for this tumultuous era? Mostly, it was material rehashing his slick frat-boy shtick from last year – albeit slightly attuned to the current cultural landscape. The evening's first few minutes were an up and down affair, but the fact that Mr. Kimmel seemed to be trying to dissect the zeitgeist was a minor miracle, given that this is the guy once charged with co-hosting The Man Show – a very real thing that today seems as prehistoric an idea as Weinstein the dinosaur.
"Oscar is the most beloved and respected man in Hollywood. And it's for good reason. Just look at him: He keeps his hands where you can see them, never says a rude word, and, most important, he has no penis at all," Mr. Kimmel said at the beginning of his opening monologue, a solid, if not exactly razor-sharp, attempt at spinning the current social landscape into something resembling comedic catharsis. "He's literally a statue of limitations!"
"Only 11 per cent of movies are directed by women, so we have a very long way to go. Look at what happened with Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg," Mr. Kimmel added, referencing the pay discrepancy between the two All the Money in the World co-stars. "What made it especially unfair is that Mark and Michelle are represented by the same agency. This shook me, because if we can't trust agents …"
Audiences were then exposed to about 10 minutes of material that straddled the line: between Billy Crystal ham ("Whose kneecaps did Tonya Harding have to break to get this casting [of Margot Robbie]?"); David Letterman surreality ("Whoever gives the shortest speech tonight will go home with … a brand-new jet-ski!"); and the fiery heights of Chris Rock brilliance ("We don't make films like Call Me By Your Name to make money, we make them to upset Mike Pence").
On his late-night ABC talk show, Mr. Kimmel has recently transformed himself into a legitimately galvanizing comic force, delivering poignant calls to action on all matters Trump, especially health-care reform and gun control. If Sunday's Oscars performance was Mr. Kimmel's effort to transfer some of that incendiary political humour to the brighter, shinier, and sweatier arena of big-screen celebrity, then he mostly succeeded – albeit miscalculating how much Hollywood wanted to hear about last year's envelope gaffe ("This year, when you hear your name called, don't get up right away").
Still, it only takes a minute of fantasy to imagine what, say, Samantha Bee would have offered instead. Or Wanda Sykes. Or Ali Wong. Or a pairing of Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish, who killed their co-presenting bit. Or any of the many hilarious and underutilized women who were ignored by ABC in favour of network mainstay Kimmel.
The mostly bland sameness of Mr. Kimmel's presence – and of the show's general soft touch – is wholly the fault of telecast producers Jennifer Todd and Michael De Luca. In arguably the most political year of the Oscars' lifetime since, um, last year, the pair had every opportunity and even tacit industry permission to dig deep into the muck that is Hollywood. And while they didn't whiff the opportunity as badly as 2017, when they danced around Donald Trump in the gentlest of hustles, they too often relied on a safety net of soft comedic punches and softer industry hagiography – to protect themselves, surely, and the business that employs them, too.
The pair even seemed to be proud of this industrial obedience, with Ms. Todd recently telling the press that audiences this year should expect an "entertaining" production that is a "giant commercial for the movie business, which we all need to keep going." But what happens when that business is exposed as a hostile wasteland in need of complete overhaul, with a flood of testimonials from its own stars as to the various abuses that fuelled it?
Sunday night was a perfect opportunity for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to wittily and furiously rebuke the movie industry's stomach-churning history, and prove it has the capacity for change, and the understanding to move forward. Mr. Kimmel tried, and even succeeded at points. But his producers mostly offered a shrug, and insisted that the show must go on.