Gervais, back for his third year, eased up on the crass jokes about his celebrity audience’s personal and professional flops — which earned him a lot of praise but also a lot of pans a year ago and gave the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which basically exists just to stage the Golden Globes, the one thing it craves most: big buzz.
This time he was funny enough, but far too harmless.
Sunday’s show, regarded as the opening stride in what will become our long march down the endless red carpets of Hollywood awards season, saw wins for “The Descendants” (best picture, drama) and actors Meryl Streep (for “The Iron Lady”), George Clooney (for “The Descendants”), Jean Dujardin (for “The Artist”) and Michelle Williams (for “My Week With Marilyn”). Martin Scorsese won best director for “Hugo,” and Woody Allen won best screenplay for “Midnight in Paris.”
Allen, in accordance with his awards-show policy, was absent. Lucky him.
The best Gervais could do this year was toss off a few jokes about the fact that he might make some unacceptable remarks. Which he never really did — even if you count the bit about Jodie Foster’s (wince) direction of a movie starring Mel Gibson (wince) called “The Beaver” (wince). Oh, stop wincing. The cringes never came.
But the stupid terrier tricks did come, late in the game, when the French stormed the stage to accept the best comedy or musical film award for “The Artist,” and someone brought Uggie, the real star of the silent movie, who pranced on his hind legs.
The funniest and most entertaining people of the evening turned out to be, in order:
1. Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy (married stars of TV’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Shameless”), who sang a charmingly harmonious ditty to introduce the best TV actress category (which deservedly went to Claire Danes, by the way, for “Homeland”).
2. Seth Rogen, making a tumescence joke about his proximity to his co-presenter, Kate Beckinsale.
3. Madonna. Yes, Madonna, who won a Golden Globe for best original song for “W.E.,” which is apparently a movie she directed about Wallis Simpson, which a lot of people had no idea even existed. It’s all part of some Madonna maintenance plan for 2012 — Super Bowl halftime show, new album, new film. She returned to the stage to present nominees for best foreign film (which went to Iran’s “A Separation”).
Gervais introduced Madonna with some old “Like a Virgin” jokes and made a ralphing sound as she walked onstage. Her response: “If I’m still just like a virgin, Ricky, then why don’t you come over and do something about it? I haven’t kissed a girl in a few years.”
“On TV,” she added.
Sadly, that’s about as good as it got. More-meaningful moments came in graceful acceptance speeches from Williams; 82-year-old Christopher Plummer (who won best supporting actor for “Beginners”); and Octavia Spencer, who won best supporting actress for her role as one of the help in “The Help,” and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on his holiday weekend: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
In the television categories, cable’s high-end shows dominated: Kelsey Grammer for “Boss,” Idris Elba for “Luther,” Kate Winslet for “Mildred Pierce,” Laura Dern for “Enlightened,” Peter Dinklage for “Game of Thrones” and Jessica Lange for “American Horror Story” and Matt LeBlanc for “Episodes.” ABC was the only broadcast network with a win, for “Modern Family.”
PBS’s much-adored “Downton Abbey” won best miniseries, and its creator, Julian Fellowes, gave an able example of how to deliver a short and mannered acceptance speech.
But that was early in the show and it was an example unheeded. The self-effacing blah-dee-blah about producers and directors and agents took over, making for a grueling slog and orchestral interruptions for even the biggest names. (“No, no!” Streep moaned, as her harried, disorganized gushing got the time’s-up cue.)
“It’s going well, isn’t it?” Gervais said, mid-show, with only miles and miles to go. “You’re so much better than last year’s audience.”
Much stiller, too. And bored stiff at home.