Billy Crystal hosts the 84th Annual Academy Awards (7:30 p.m., ABC). Just writing that sentence made me feel like I entered a time warp. Will Crystal’s return as host give the Oscars a boost? Or remind viewers that his heyday coincided with the early years of “Seinfeld,” the first Bush presidency and “Wayne’s World”? Crystal hosted as recently as 2004, but he’s most associated with the years that also saw him in hit films like “City Slickers” (1991).
But what’s a decade or two? If the list of best picture nominees is any indication, nostalgia appears to be the order of the night. “The Artist” and “Hugo” celebrate the silent era. “Midnight in Paris” features a present-day character who happily time travels to the 1920s. “The Help” recalls the civil rights era, and even “Moneyball” glances a decade back.
Designed to celebrate commerce and culture, box office and art, the Oscars tend to attract their largest audiences when the most popular films of the year are also honored. The stars aligned when “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” cleaned up at the Oscars and attracted huge audiences.
While this year’s highest-grossing films — sequels to the “Harry Potter,” ‘‘Transformers” and “Twilight” franchises — sold a lot of popcorn, they’ve been all but shut out from the hunt for the gold statues. Of the films nominated for best picture, “The Help” was the highest grossing, ranking No. 13 of the films released in 2011. “The Artist,” the film many consider the front-runner for the night’s highest honor, did not even crack the top 100.
As the evening wanes, television becomes more about high stakes and investing the audience in the drama. That’s why so many successful 9 p.m. series involve police work that can be wrapped up in 43 minutes. Around 9:30 p.m., I can’t imagine how many people will really care to stick around to see which film they didn’t see take home the big award.
With that said, let’s hope Crystal returns the Oscar to fun, razzle-dazzle and professional showmanship. Recent efforts to be hip and edgy, with Chris Rock and Jon Stewart as past hosts and last year’s tag team of Anne Hathaway and James Franco, were forgettable at best.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (6 p.m., CBS): humans take flight, a real-life spider man, South Africa’s sharks.
• Scheduled on “Dateline NBC” (6 p.m.): animals under scrutiny.