TV review: 'Kennedy Center Honors' on CBS, strangely chilled

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 7:28 PM

The "Kennedy Center Honors" telecast (Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS) is a permanent fixture on the windblown tundra that is the prime-time television schedule between Christmas and New Year's Day, airing a few weeks after the gala itself. Some years are less frozen than others.

Once in a while, you can make a case for relocating the Honors program to a choicer spot on the schedule (what about spring?), where more people might happen to see it. Last year's Honors, for example, was a very good show that ended in a rousing tribute to Bruce Springsteen and managed to capture a certain pride of place about Washington and its performing arts jewel box on the Potomac.

In other years, like this one, the Honors show reverts to a chilly, old form. It's as if the event has been wheeled in from the cultural infirmary wing for a song-and-dance show that's being staged in the hospital community room. It claps along and smiles.

This is not a swipe at the average age of the honorees. Indeed, the event should be about artists who are older and filled with reflective satisfaction, and not just in the opera-house box above, but in glimpses of their peers onstage below. In any of its 33 years, the Honors have provided the rare treat to an underserved viewer who will, for a current example, take true delight in seeing Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera and Carol Channing grasp hands with confident vim and belt out one of honoree Jerry Herman's show tunes.

But even bookended with star-studded tributes to super-famous Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, this year's show feels too perfunctory. There is nothing wrong with it, really, save for the sense of duty that makes the Kennedy Center Honors somehow so uninteresting to a larger world. Judging from this sluggish telecast, no one seemed to be one bit more thrilled to be there than the minimum gratitude and glee required by Kennedy Center fiat.

Winfrey, who is over-adored at this point, is seen in the box of honor, there with Sir Paul, the president, a fashionably bespectacled first lady and other honorees. Winfrey reaches behind her seat to grip her partner Stedman Graham's hands as Jennifer Hudson launches into a beautiful song from "The Color Purple" musical that Winfrey produced. McCartney succeeds at appearing quite pleased by his musical montage, the show's finale, even as No Doubt, Steven Tyler and others mangle a broad sampling of his solo and Beatles oeuvre.

The highlights, as ever, come with the tributes to slightly less stellar - thus somehow more human - honorees. The Herman montage is the most ebullient by far; the Bill T. Jones dance tribute is naturally the most challenging; and the Merle Haggard montage is deeply moving in a way that best represents the true spirit of the awards. Alas, this great middle part is also where viewers will likely surf away.

Meanwhile, those of us who remain cannot help but parse each of the show's "big moments" for authenticity. What must it be like for these five people to sit through such adulatory excess? The show is worth it to viewers who like to try to sense the degrees of awkwardness, humility, vehrklemptitude and pride that repeatedly wash over the faces of the honorees as each is saluted for a full quarter-hour or more.

The camera is always returning to them, like a mosquito hoping to extract more blood, and the honorees know it is there. Such shots last much longer than those nanosecond reaction shots of nervous nominees during awards shows; if it hasn't been done already, some enterprising YouTuber should compile many years' worth of legendary faces as they squint, weep, smile and clench their way through this peculiar psychological endurance test of ego management and acceptance of one's luminary status. To look too pleased with oneself makes for bad television; to look too mortified is an exercise in mock modesty. And to look too near death is another problem entirely.

Of all the awards shows that viewers think they could improve upon (from the Oscars on down), the problem of the Kennedy Center Honors seems the most vexing - any idea for transforming it into better television would doubtless compromise its noble sense of purpose. Like so much about Washington, the show is deeply set in its ways, which often means that the warmness generated in the opera house that evening can easily elude the stuffier telecast, which has been produced by George Stevens Jr. since forever.

Also, to the surprise of no one, the show has been sanitized for our mainstream protection. Gone are political comments playwright Edward Albee made about revolutionaries and the liberal, blue-state joie de vivre that he says separates excellent artistry from cultural mediocrity. (Albee introduced the portion of the show honoring provocative choreographer Jones.) Gone too is a crack that comedian Chris Rock made during the tribute to Winfrey about Sarah Palin being able to read a book, which elicited some boos.

Or something like that. You would literally have had to have been there (or read about it in The Washington Post's coverage) to know what really happened.

This echoes a similar edit by PBS this year, when Mark Twain Prize recipient Tina Fey's saucier remarks (again referencing Palin) never made it to the broadcast, an ironic twist, because sauciness is exactly what gets a person a Mark Twain Prize.

I say let these people - honorees, performers, guests - dig their own holes and electrify these snoozy shows, speaking freely about whatever they think is funny or interesting. Then let the masses brutally inform them otherwise the next day. Getting outraged beats drifting off.

The 33rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors (two hours) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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