'Kennedy Center Honors' a serious disappointment this year

David Zurawik: I loved 'Kennedy Center Honors' ... until this year.

I can’t count all the rave reviews I have written for “The Kennedy Center Honors” over the years.

This year, though, it’s a different story.

I cannot remember being as disappointed by a production that I have looked forward to year after year as I was by this year’s offering, which airs at 9 tonight on CBS.

I used to love the short film biographies of each of the honorees that were shown before other performers and artists took the stage at the Kennedy Center to offer their salutes. They were skillfully crafted mini-biographies that usually helped explain the cultural roots of the people being honored.

This year, not so much.

The appeal of Tom Hanks in feature film was explained by such bromides as, “He’s an everyman and the best of us at the same time.”

That was the analysis from the astute social and film critic, Martin Short, anyway.

But it got worse the longer Short was onstage. He led a grotesquely overblown, pointless extravaganza number pegged to the music of “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Except here it was “You’re a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” presumably because Hanks is such an American type.

Rather than illustrating what was special about Hanks, it embodied much of everything that is wrong with overblown, big-budget Hollywood movies.

It followed an equally head-scratching number that featured Laura Benanti, Jessie Mueller and Kelli O’Hara singing, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

I have no idea what it was about Hanks that they were not going to be able to take away from the three. The way he wears his hat? The way he sips his tea? That’s what they were singing about.

The Lily Tomlin tribute was equally unfocused. From the bio film to the personal expressions of admiration from Reba McEntire and Jane Fonda, nothing explained what it was that made Tomlin such a singular and special comedic presence on American TV, stage and film.

Tomlin deserved better – much better.

Not that the two-hour production was totally without entertaining moments.

Mavis Staples and Sam Moore lit up the hall in their salute to Al Green with “Take Me to the River.”

And Bruce Springsteen did the same in his performance saluting Sting. Bruno Mars rocked the house as well.

The most consistent, eloquent and illuminating tribute was the one for ballerina Patricia McBride. It explained why she deserved the tribute and then it brought one exquisite dancer after another onstage revisiting some of her greatest roles.

Still, it was two hours of hit and miss, with more misses than hits – and that’s the opposite of what “Kennedy Center Honors” has been over the years.

I wondered why things went so wrong this year.

The Washington Post offered a possible explanation in reporting what went on in the hall the night the show was taped.

George Stevens Jr., longtime executive producer of the telecast, came onstage for what was supposed to be just a wave to the audience as he was named and thanked by Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.

But instead of just waving, Stevens came onstage to say that this was the last “Honors” that he and his son, Michael, would be producing because Rubenstein was forcing them out after 37 years, according to the Post.

“The bombshell stunned the audience, which gave Stevens an awkward standing ovation as he left the stage,” the Post wrote. “But his announcement detracted from the remainder of the star-studded fundraiser.”

I don’t know if the backstage drama was responsible for all of what I saw as substandard.

But I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to see this great, annual TV institution - a reminder of the golden age of variety shows on network television - reduced to such a lackluster production this year.

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