Every year, CBS uses the slowest TV week of the year -- the week between Christmas and New Year's -- to showcase the annual "Kennedy Center Honors" program and spotlight the careers of some of this country's most talented performers. This year, the spotlight falls on Victor Borge, Sean Connery, Judith Jamison, Jason Robards Jr. and Stevie Wonder.
"The Kennedy Center Honors" never wants for worthy honorees -- everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Fred Astaire to B.B. King to Bob Dylan has been feted, each with a segment in which fellow performers pay tribute. And the show can usually be counted on to include at least one rousing salute.
Last year's musical homage to Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb, which brought together Alan Cumming, Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli on the same stage, was entertainment with a capital "E".
Unfortunately, tonight's segments are languid with a capital "L," stiff, staid and somewhat stingy tributes that shortchange the people they're intended to honor.
Take the tribute to Borge, for instance. Described onstage by Christopher Plummer as "the funniest man ever to play the piano," the Copenhagen-born Borge is truly a one-of-a-kind talent. Watching his impertinent, hilarious performances on the piano is always a delight, and his tribute's best 30 seconds are brief film snippets of his act (including a piano piece played upside down and backward).
Unfortunately, Borge is so one-of-a-kind that the Kennedy Center folks couldn't find anyone to perform his act onstage. Which doesn't explain, however, why tribute is paid by violinist Mark O'Connor and 26 young violinists from East Harlem, under the tutelage of Roberta Guaspari (whose story was told in the recent Meryl Streep film, "Music of the Heart").
Their performance is uplifting, and the youngsters play their hearts out, but what does this have to do with Victor Borge?
Also ill-served is Judith Jamison, who took over direction of the Alvin Ailey Dancers when Ailey died.
"A giant of American dance," as described in opening remarks by program host Walter Cronkite, the 6-foot Jamison made her greatest impact in a 16-minute dance choreographed by Ailey, an homage to black women titled "Cry."
The few seconds of film footage showing Jamison dancing is marvelous, as is the new interpretation by Dwana Adiaha Smallwood -- at least what one gets to see of it; her performance lasts only two minutes.
And while a rendition of "Rock a My Soul In the Bosom of Abraham" is stirring, the effect is seriously undercut by the decision to cut away frequently for crowd reaction shots.
Similar quibbles can be made regarding the other three tributes as well.
Sean Connery (the Kennedy Center's rules allow one non-American to be honored each year) is feted with bagpipes, courtesy of The City of Washington Pipe Band, and a sweet rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" by Mari Campbell. All of which points up his Scottish heritage, but says little about the film career for which he is being honored.
Jason Robards, who rose to fame as a stage interpreter of Eugene O'Neill, is serenaded with "Another Op'nin Another Show" from "Kiss Me, Kate" -- a fine song from a fine show, but it hardly represents the Broadway accomplishments of Robards.
Stevie Wonder, whose tribute closes the show, fares better than his fellow honorees, thanks to some touching words from Coretta Scott King, a beautiful rendition of "All In Love Is Fair" by Smokey Robinson and a spirited -- if truncated -- version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," led by Baltimore's own Morgan State University Choir.
At its best, "The Kennedy Center Honors" both honors some great performers and offers insight into why they're worth honoring.
This year's version, unfortunately, does plenty of the former but precious little of the latter.
What: "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts"
Where: WJZ, Channel 13
When: 9 to 11