'Kennedy Center Honors' - An American TV Treasure returns

"The Kennedy Center Honors" is one of the nation's great TV treasures. And while this year's show is a little uneven, the high points still make it one of my favorite TV viewing experiences of the year.

Maybe you have to be a little older to appreciate this annual production on some levels.


If you grew up with TV in the 1950s and '60s, the golden age of variety shows hosted by such stars as Judy Garland and Danny Kaye, you can appreciate "Kennedy Center Honors" as the last, great variety show on television.

And it seems fitting that it is on CBS, because in that era, at least for news and variety shows, CBS really was "The Tiffany of Networks."


But what's most important about this show that celebrates the achievements of American performers and artists is the way it reminds you at the end of the year of some of the things that are great about American culture.

For all the problems we are having as a nation in these deeply troubled times, the diversity, vitality, range and spirit of our culture is still stonishing. And if that sounds like some form of American Exceptionalism, so be it. Those who let the cultural-studies PC Police scare them into never acknowledging what is special or great about American life are cowards.

The roster this year is: blues guitarist Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova, actor Dustin Hoffman, comedian David Letterman and Led Zeppelin.

I feel like Dustin Hoffman, who was the first honoree saluted, deserved a better segment. But then, I worship Hoffman, so anything probably would have inadequate to me.

The highlight for me was the segment devoted to Guy. A short biographical film gave you a real feel for his life and work and the arc of his journey from rural Louisiana to Chicago and the world.

And then, came the musical performances.

Tracy Chapman doing "Hound Dog" was only OK. But Gary Clark, Jr. and Jimmy Vaughn (brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughn) killed on Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do."

And just as you were thinking no one was going to top that, out comes Beth Hart and Jeff Beck doing the R&B ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind." Everyone in the hall was on their feet when their soul-searing performance ended.

And then came Bonnie Raitt leading an all-star lineup doing "Sweet Home Chicago."


My second favorite segment belonged to Makarova -- and that even surprised me a little. But the dancing was sublime.

The Led Zeppelin tribute to the three surviving members, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, was impressive, too, in a very different way.


And there was an excellent mix of high-end artistic aspiration and rough-hewn American irreverence and cheekiness throughout.

The broadcast takes you from the ethereal, soaring movements of dancers David Hallberg and Julie Kent during the Makarova salute, to comedian Jimmy Kimmel standing onstage and looking up into the balcony where honoree David Letterman is sitting to say, "You are my hero. And you are a hero to most everyone in this room -- with the possible exception of the people who came to see the ballerina."

Oh yeah, Barack and Michelle Obama were into it all the way sitting alongside the honorees.

In the end, that might be the greatest thing about this annual TV event: The reminder it offers of that era in the early 1960s when John and Jackie Kennedy were in the White House and they opened its doors to the best performers and artists in American life.

But maybe you have to be a little older -- or have some real sense of recent American history -- to appreciate that.

The show airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 26) on CBS.

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