How to watch the Oscars without going insane

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.-The Academy Awards are a chance to break out ballots, champagne and canapes; to place bets on the outcomes; and to sigh over the red-carpet dresses. But as much as watching the show can be a giddy, glitzy delight, it also can be...
Frances McDormand is the likely best actress winner for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." MUST CREDIT: Merrick Morton, Fox Searchlight Pictures

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.-The Academy Awards are a chance to break out ballots, champagne and canapes; to place bets on the outcomes; and to sigh over the red-carpet dresses. But as much as watching the show can be a giddy, glitzy delight, it also can be frustrating.

The ceremony can drag on endlessly. The results can range from yawningly predictable to head-scratchingly terrible. And putting on an awards show is simply a notoriously difficult task, constantly plagued by the possibility that a monologue will be felled by a bad joke or that presenters will reveal bad chemistry.

As a result, it's best to head into Oscar night keeping a few things in mind. If you can remember these caveats, you'll have a better shot at avoiding rage or consternation, and of heading into work on Monday feeling cheery instead of bleary.

1. Remember that if your favorite movie doesn't win best picture, that doesn't mean much-and I can't reiterate this enough. It's vital to remember that best picture, unlike the winner in any other category, is chosen not by a majority vote but by a system of preferential balloting. All other Academy Awards go to the nominee who gets the highest percentage of votes, and voters choose one nominee in the category to vote for. But for best picture, the Academy members rank all of the nominees. Then the movie that is ranked at the top of the list by the fewest voters is eliminated, and the ballots of those who ranked that movie first go toward the totals for their second choices.

This is a complicated way of saying that the movie that wins best picture is not the movie that a majority of Oscar voters think is definitely the best of the year, but one that a majority of Oscar voters think is among the best of the year. Will that salve your annoyance if a movie you truly hate is anointed best picture? Probably not. But it's definitely healthier to think of the winner as a negotiated result, rather than a definitive pronouncement of the absolute best in movies for a given year.

2. Treat the winners as data about the academy's tastes, rather than as definitive verdicts. I'm going to let you in on one of the great secrets that critics know: No one can take your opinions away from you - not me, not the academy, not the ghosts of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. If the Oscar goes to a performance you thought was garbage, that doesn't mean you watch movies wrong, just as if all of the Academy Awards in a given year go to nominees you loved, it's not proof that your taste is somehow superior to everyone else's. Determinations of artistic quality aren't actually objective.

So, instead of watching the Academy Awards either to validate your taste or to tell yourself that everyone else's taste is trash and you're the only true aesthete alive, treat the Oscars like a look inside the academy's collective brain. If Sam Rockwell wins best supporting actor for his performance in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," it doesn't mean that the Oscar voters love racist cops, but it does suggest a strong preference for talky roles that involve dramatic physical work and big growth for a character. If "The Shape of Water" wins best picture, it's a reminder that Oscar voters come from a lot of different branches, and the movie has support for many reasons: its status as a period piece, its dramatic costuming and physical effects, and its message of tolerance. You don't have to be happy with what the Oscar results say about the entertainment industry's priorities, but it is an educational event.

3. Don't forget that the whole spectacle is a giant commercial enterprise: The Academy Awards are a giant media spectacle, which of course means they're a big business. To stay that way, they have to pull off a tricky balancing act. This year, that means appealing to viewers who are mostly into the show for the famous people, to engaged entertainment consumers who care a lot about representation and diversity and to advocates who are watching the industry's response to sexual harassment allegations. Whatever happens will be a compromise and the result of the individual impulses of the winners who get up on stage to make their speeches. Calibrate your expectations accordingly.

4. If you get exhausted or bored, allow yourself to go to bed. Sure, it's possible that the accountants who handle the Oscar balloting and the envelopes with the winners' names will have another can't-miss screw-up like they did last year, when "La La Land" was announced as the winner, only for it to be revealed that "Moonlight" had actually won. But it's unlikely. And so if you find yourself wanting to tap out, give yourself permission. You'll always be able to catch up on YouTube and a million write-ups the next morning. The Academy Awards should be fun, not an obligation. You're allowed to choose sleep instead.