Once again saving the best for last, CBS’ presentation of the 33rd annual Kennedy Center Honors is a wonderfully classy affair, bringing together a disparate quintet of creative titans bookended by adoring tributes to Oprah Winfrey (just in time to tacitly promote her new cable network) and Paul McCartney. Not everything clicked in terms of those chosen to perform at the D.C. gala, but seeing the assembled showbiz and Washington luminaries joyously engaging in a massive “Hey Jude” sing-along is the kind of transcendant moment you simply don’t find often on television.
And then, of course, there’s Winfrey, who comic Chris Rock — letting some air out of cloying tributes from Julia Roberts, John Travolta and Barbara Walters — wryly calls the most powerful person in the world, saying that while nobody is more deserving of an award, “No one needs it less.”
Fortunately, the Winfrey segment culminates with Jennifer Hudson crushing a number from the stage version of “The Color Purple,” bringing what ought to be a pretty jaded audience leaping to their feet. (I almost gave her a standing ovation sitting alone in the living room.)
That gave way to the musical/dance productions honoring Jones, Haggard and composer Herman, the last culminating with about a thousand people on stage belting out show tunes. What’s not to like?
Still, as with Bruce Spring-steen last year, the highlight was reserved for McCartney, whose music has pretty well touched everyone on the planet during the last half-century. Not everyone tasked with performing is a terrific choice (Norah Jones, for one, seemed ill suited), but by the time Steven Tyler jokes about Pennsylvania Avenue meeting Abbey Road, there won’t be many curmudgeons resisting this collective hug. (McCartney quietly sings along, almost unconsciously, as his tunes are played for him.)
CBS sort of stumbled into the formula of airing the Honors between Christmas and New Year’s, and it turned out to be a savvy move — providing little competition against the Emmy-winning showcase, and still affording the network the prestige of carrying it.
Granted, the audience tends to skew quite old, and it would be nice if more young viewers could be lured to an event that so unabashedly celebrates the arts in all their breadth and variety. Still, in keeping with the spirit of this year’s show, perhaps it’s best just to let it be.