TV Review: ‘The Kennedy Center Honors’

Kennedy Center Honors

Always one of TV's classiest nights, the 36th edition is marred by some out-of-the-box choices

The Kennedy Center Honors” is always a joyous and classy affair, and this year’s telecast gets a modest upgrade — airing on a Sunday night, albeit still in the arid window between Christmas and New Year’s. Yet the 36th edition of this annual celebration of the arts features some truly out-of-the-box choices, with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly among the presenters. As usual, there are genuinely heartwarming moments — such as opera singer Martina Arroyo singing along to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” — but this might be the least memorable edition of the Honors in the last several years.

That may be in part because of the relatively narrow — if invariably eclectic — field of honorees, with four of the five coming from different disciplines of music, leaving Shirley MacLaine as the lone representative from the cinematic arts. In addition, Glenn Close subs in as mistress of ceremonies for Caroline Kennedy, recently named ambassador to Japan. While Kennedy was always a little stiff in her hosting capacity, the connection to her father traditionally added a compensating element of nostalgia to the proceedings. (In the night’s best line, Close introduces MacLaine as having lived “a life too big for just one lifetime.”)

The Kennedy Center draws its strength, in part, from seeing these esteemed artists clearly having a ball, along with the mix of political heavyweights and who’s who of celebrities filling the hall. It always looks like a dinner party that would be a blast to attend.

That said, the frequently arbitrary nature of the presenters and performers feels especially strained this year, from Snoop Dogg participating in the Herbie Hancock tribute (and trying to get the whole crowd to yell “Ho!”) to the introductions by Sotomayor, O’Reilly and Tony Bennett for, in sequence, Arroyo, Hancock and Billy Joel.

Not surprisingly, the Joel tribute is saved for last, and it’s a pull-out-the-stops affair, with Vietnam veterans coming onstage during Garth Brooks’ performance of “Goodnight Saigon,” and a choir — as well as most of the audience — helping Rufus Wainwright bang out “Piano Man.” Even that finishing kick, however, doesn’t rival the show-stopping highlights of past ceremonies.

Granted, there are other mild pleasures to be savored, from watching first lady Michelle Obama groove to the music to the annual guessing game of seeing at what point the camera will conspicuously find CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen.

Then again, if that nod to the network is all that’s required to keep “The Kennedy Center Honors” on broadcast TV — despite a demographic skew that’s probably older than even O’Reilly’s audience — then so be it. And if this year’s edition seemed slightly pallid compared to previous ones, it’s still a perfectly fine way to spent an evening basking in the glory of five lifetimes (and thanks to MacLaine, perhaps a few more) extremely well spent.

TV Review: 'The Kennedy Center Honors'

(Special; CBS, Sun. Dec. 29, 9 p.m.)


Presented by the Stevens Co. in association with the Kennedy Center.


Producers, George Stevens Jr., Michael Stevens; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; supervising producer, Bill Urban; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Sara Lukinson, Lewis Friedman, George Stevens Jr., Michael Stevens; music directors, Rob Mathes, Rob Berman. 120 MIN.


Honorees: Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, Carlos Santana

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  1. Alison says:

    Loved the show. I almost started sobbing when the veterans came on stage while Garth Brooks was honoring Billy Joel. Rufus Wainwright was spectacular. In fact, most of the performers were terrific. It is always heart-warming to see how moved the honorees are during their tributes. Have watched this special since its inception and have never been disappointed. It’s time to honor James Taylor in 2014.

  2. I’m not normally a TV watcher; happened to tune through the channel showing the Kennedy Honors show. Am not qualified to comment on the artists; but Am to comment on the president’s demeanor – former career Navy. Of ALL leaders I have noticed — this ‘person’ is the most LEAST Presidential I have ever witnessed. Chewing gum like a cow chews its cud. What a low class representative of the Cream of the Crop nation in the world. To top off my assessment, when the military group was being honored on stage, and the’in charge desinnee gave the command, “hand salute”, the Commander-in-Chief never made a move to cover his heart or render a salute. Disgraceful.

    • Crystal says:

      Obviously you weren’t paying very good attention, because President Obama did render a salute. I just watched it on my DVR.

  3. Tom says:

    Shirley McLaine’s tribute was disappointing … where was her brother Warren Beatty? Considering the wealth of movies she has done, her tribute missed the mark as it only featured her Hollywood friend, Kathy Bates. Surely they could have dug up a few legends to add to the festivities? I personally felt that the Santana tribute was the best. Billy Joel’s was OK (Don Henley was great) … the rest of the show was fine but not as exciting.

  4. Susan Lynn says:

    My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 Kennedy Awards. As a country we should be proud that we have so many talented individuals with such diverse backgrounds entertaining audiences all over the world. We have watched the shows over many years and always felt our Presidents have enjoyed every minute of the presentations.

  5. Jon says:

    I don’t know what you were smoking but I wouldn’t change places with the dog when you get home tonight. I thought it was the best show of the season and one of the best “Honors” shows in recent memory. The Santana, Arroyo and Billy Joel performances were spectacular.

    • Yes, it was so good that I found myself applauding. Like another commenter, I was so proud of the performers and, for a change, proud of the country who spawned them. I was thoroughly entertained. So much better than other silly award shows. Congrats to all involved,.

  6. JSB says:

    I am slack-jawed at this review – thought it was one of the best shows all-around in many years. Whereas there are usually at least 2 duds in the presentations, this year’s tributes were all wonderful, in my opinion. Different people introducing the honourees – great! Bill O’Reilly was a shocker, but he had some self-awareness about this and, obviously, Herbie Hancock was in on this, so why would any of us complain? Judge Sotomayor was a great choice to me, and Miss Arroyo obviously appreciated her, as well. The Santana tribute was wild and wonderful, Miss Arroyo’s tribute by her students was stunning. I thoroughly enjoyed the soup-to-nuts group honouring Hancock, INCLUDING Snoop Dog – did you bother to listen to the verse of his rap??!! It was brilliant and fun. Shirley MacLaine’s tribute was lovely, and Billy Joel’s was great, in my opinion – any time an octogenarian legend introduces you, I think you’re on your way – the veterans, the song selection – great stuff. Sorry you missed it!

  7. Eugenia (Jean) Eckhardt says:

    So, who would you suggest as a better Host or Hostess? Since Caroline Kennedy (described as a little stiff), but a “Kennedy”, and no high tribute is made to Glenn Close? It is much easier to criticize than to come up with a remedy…

    • sharon witt says:

      I personally missed having Caroline Kennedy be the Hostess. I think she has always done a great job. It must be very difficult for her at times. Hopefully this was only a one time occurrence that she had someone else do it. Glenn Close did a nice job too, but I much prefer Caroline. And I thought this show was well done, as always, although a little different format, but still something we always look forward to watching.

  8. Broadwayfan says:

    I’m shocked they would let Bill O’Reilly on stage at one of these presentations. There will never be an artist with Conservative or Republican views honored, that’s for sure.
    Can’t get a more liberal marriage than Washington D.C,and the entertainment industry.

  9. John Chroniger says:

    I turned on the “Kennedy Center Honors” only to be Pissed off immediately when the honorees were panned during the playing of our National Anthem. When Honoree Carlos Santana was shown keeping his hat on during the entire playing of the Anthem, I commented that here was a person who shows no respect for a country that has supported him in buying his music and making him rich. Even though he was being honored by the President and given all the adulation possible, he dishonored our nation by this flagrant display towards the symbols of our nation. Respect for these symbols is only a slight token that we require of all those that profit from our Capitalist free market society.

    Yet, some of those we regularly honor are the first to vocalize their disrespect for the country that allows them the freedom to think what they might. While they are free to speak whatever their hearts desire in public , a modicum of respect when being honored by that self same country needs to be recognized.

  10. cadavra says:

    I’m amazed they still haven’t honored Carl Reiner yet, especially as they did so for his BFF Mel Brooks several years ago.

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