If Ricky Gervais got anything right during his juvenile, boorish, unwanted, yet somehow fourth stint as the host of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual awards show, it was his repeated insistence that the Golden Globes simply don’t matter. This is true in the most general sense, that a bunch of privileged people giving a bunch of even more privileged people some statues doesn’t affect the world much one way or the other. This is even true in the more pragmatic sense — that the Globes don’t affect the Oscars, or even do a particularly good job of predicting them.
But most of all, it’s true in the artistic sense, which, if only in the most theoretical and high-minded of ways, is what these things are supposed to be about. The Golden Globes, as last night ought to teach us once and for all, are not about determining and honoring the best of two related and ever-evolving industries. They’re an event where cheap contrarianism and arbitrary preferences come together for an evening of gleeful, institutionalized trolling, in both the telecast and the awards themselves.
We’ve known this was coming ever since the HFPA announced Gervais was returning after a three-year reprieve, during which the viewing public was left in the capable hands of a comedic duo who’d never dream of opening their monologue with a sewage spill of transphobia. We’ve definitely known this was coming since the nominations came out last month, a typically odd grab bag that placed Mozart in the Jungle in the same tier as Transparent, and Trainwreck in the same group as laugh riots like The Martian and Joy. Yet last night’s ceremony still managed to produce more than its (already considerable) fair share of the special cognitive dissonance reserved for awards shows: the distance between what’s supposedly happening — say, declaring the best comedy currently airing on television — and what’s actually unfolding onscreen.
These moments were ushered along at a mercilessly fast clip by Gervais, rapidly depleting beer glass in hand and smug demeanor fully intact. Gervais seems to pride himself on what he apparently sees as speaking truth to power: his willingness to burn bridges with some of the world’s most popular people on live television, largely by going places no one else will. He seems unable to distinguish, however, between cases where things aren’t said because it’s impolite, like bringing up Ben Affleck’s infidelity, and cases where things aren’t said because saying them would be a broach of basic human decency, like using Caitlyn Jenner’s birth name. As long as it’s an excuse to drop in naughty words like “balls” (as in Jeffrey Tambor’s, and what he did with them while portraying a transgender woman), “ass” (as in Gervais’), or “tits” (as in “sugar,” inexplicably and heavily bleeped out when brought up to Mel Gibson), it’s fair game.
Both Gervais’ material itself and the decision to invite him back read as deliberate, shallow acts of provocation, more interested in eking out a strong response in the moment than producing something that could withstand more than a few minutes’ scrutiny. It was difficult not to feel the same way about many of the actual awards, even though they were clearly the product of a tiny group’s specific, discernible preference — not one comedian’s indiscriminate attempts to offend for offense’s sake. Still, the winners were an equally pointed reminder that not only does objective quality not exist, but the HFPA isn’t even attempting to recognize it.
Sometimes, the Globes’ idiosyncrasies proved to be a good thing, as when the HFPA’s fondness for trendsetting led to an important win for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Rachel Bloom, whose fantastic but unsurprisingly low-rated show has yet to be renewed for a second season. Sometimes, the awards were odd in a way that was actually endearing; who thought we’d live to see the day when Lady Gaga, ever classy, picked up an award for acting? More often than not, however, the HFPA’s picks were either depressingly predictable or just plain infuriating.
Take the Foreign Press Association’s noted preference for, well, foreign nominees. There’s no other metric that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Mozart in the Jungle is a better comedy than Orange Is the New Black, or Silicon Valley, or Transparent, and it’s sad to think that’s the reason Carol, Spotlight, and both film’s directors may have lost out to The Revenant and Alejandro Iñárritu, thereby shutting both works out of the competition entirely. Even when the trend included well-deserved wins like Oscar Isaac’s, for Best Actor in a TV Miniseries or Movie, and Mr. Robot‘s, for Best Drama Series, the whole still felt more like reflexive preference than a good-faith effort to honor the best of the best.
And then there’s the issue of so-called “category fraud,” a phenomenon whose importance is majorly overblown but still feels like an accurate descriptor for, say, The Martian and Joy sweeping the Motion Picture — Comedy category over Trainwreck and Spy (“Comedy?!” Ridley Scott asked when he got to the stage, speaking for all of us). This is less about the Golden Globes specifically and more about the Golden Globes as part of the Machiavellian campaign for prestige and, eventually, box office dollars that is Awards Season, in which movies and shows’ genre is decided less by their content and more by their field of competition.
So, what does this all add up to? An awards show that’s a disappointment, and bound to remain so as long as the HFPA remains what it is: a small and disproportionately publicized group prone to maintaining that publicity through gimmicks like bringing back Ricky Gervais. The Globes are still fun to watch — after all, they’re an annual showcase for visibly intoxicated celebrities. But they’re not, ultimately, important. Even the MC knows it.