Always one of the classiest nights of TV, the 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors can be measured in two ways: against the dreck and reruns sandwiched between Christmas and New Year’s; and compared with the event’s glittering history. So while the show emerges as a welcome respite on the first score, it’s a notch below recent editions on the latter, both in terms of honorees and the tributes. Even with a shortage of transcendent moments, though, it’s still a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours, if not one for the archives.
Sometimes, the eclectic roster of recipients can work to the program’s advantage, seeing unlikely personalities from different disciplines thrown together, and clearly having a ball.
For whatever reason, that dynamic is muted this year, or the mix is a little off, with actress Meryl Streep and pop star Neil Diamond joined by jazz artist Sonny Rollins, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Barbara Cook.
The evening gets off to a stumbling start with the Streep tribute, which mainly consists of former co-stars talking about how fabulous she is, followed by a rather incongruous number by Anne Hathaway. The biggest laugh, improbably, belongs to Robert De Niro, who says after watching the clips package, “My first thought is, ‘I was amazing in ‘The Deer Hunter.’?”
Matching talent with the tributes is always something of a crapshoot as well, and again, the latest spec lags by that standard. That said, it’s worth tuning in simply to hear Audra McDonald belt out “Till There Was You” during the medley for Cook, or to see an entire crowd of formally attired entertainment luminaries rising in unison to join in Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
The Yo-Yo Ma presentation closes the evening, with Stephen Colbert, of all people, providing the funny yet warm introduction, much to the delight of the cellist, and first lady Michelle Obama.
CBS has obviously found a way to turn the Kennedy Center Honors into a no-risk confection, presenting it for the benefit of an older audience during a dead spot in the TV calendar. And the collision of Washington and showbiz in such a joyous setting is certainly worth having on the air.
It’s just that unlike some recent Kennedy Center Honors that were worth saving and replaying — Bruce Springsteen and Mel Brooks come to mind — this year’s event is strictly a one-night stand.