“CBS: The First 50 Years” is pretty much what you would expect from a program that aims to cram 50 years worth of memories and significance into two hours (95 minutes or so minus the commercials and promos). It’s really an infomercial selling the colorful history of the onetime Tiffany Network that’s far higher on style than substance. It speaks volumes that the most influential network in the world’s most groundbreaking communications medium can wrap up a half century of everything from the JFK assassination to “Murphy Brown” more than an hour quicker than it took James Cameron to sink the Titanic. Did somebody say MTV Generation?
It’s a spiffy little package of clips, all right. But the presentation from exec producers/directors Andrew Solt and Frank Martin, and writer Alan Rucker is on the hokey side, with folks like David Cop-perfield and Angela Lansbury making stiff, forced introductions of various pieces of CBS history. There is lots of surface skimming and precious little depth.
And David Letterman has rarely looked more uncomfortable, and sounded less sincere, than when he is describing the impact on CBS of a fella named Ed Sullivan.
That said, it’s tough to totally mangle good nostalgia, and CBS boasts tons of it. The highlights include Mike Wallace’s legendary “60 Minutes” interview with Barbra Streisand in which he inspired Babs to sob, some illuminating words from Tom and Dick Smothers, a visit back to the “Who shot J.R.?” mania on “Dallas” (complete with observations from Larry Hagman himself) and some of Dan Rather’s early reporting triumphs in Vietnam.
“The First 50 Years” certainly showcases the incredible breadth and depth of CBS’ primetime clas-sics, from “I Love Lucy” (Carol Burnett gives Lucy a clever tribute at the outset) to “Gunsmoke” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “MASH,” “Carol Burnett,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “60 Minutes,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Waltons.” Program also isn’t afraid to give CBS a few good natured digs for foisting the likes of “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” onto the world.
What’s conspicuously missing is anything here from CBS Sports, and anything resembling a proper tribute to news pioneers like Edward R. Murrow. Murrow’s on air decimation of Communist witch hunter Joe McCarthy is dismissed in about 30 seconds.
But if all you crave is a stroll down memory lane, the two hours more or less delivers the goods — albeit in bite sized portions.