We are knee-deep in what is annually one of the worst stretches of the television season. Commercial overload, coupled with a three-week hiatus of new episodes as the networks reload for the launch of their midseason replacements, serve as a nasty reminder of how bad American television can get.
And, then, there is The 25th Annual Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, a delight of holiday programming that connects us in our homes straight to the heart of American cultural life with just the click of a remote control. In its 25 years, the Kennedy Center Honors show has become so much more than anyone should expect from a commercial network during the holiday doldrums. But there it is at 9 tonight on CBS, two hours of music, memory, performance and community that you do not want to miss.
The format that began in 1978 features five artists being feted at Washington's Kennedy Center for their body of work. The first five were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubenstein. The five celebrated tonight are actor James Earl Jones, conductor James Levine, dancer/actress Chita Rivera, actress Elizabeth Taylor and singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
I came to this TV party to see Rivera and Simon, two of my favorite performers in the world. But it was the segment for Levine, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, that blew me away. I tell you this because I suspect many will watch the show in portions, perhaps even leaving the room while a performer or an artist from an unfamiliar realm is featured.
Don't. There isn't a totally flat segment in the two-hour program. Furthermore, each performer's work is made so accessible that you might just find your taste buds heightened and your artistic horizons widened by staying in your seat. And when was the last time anyone accused network television of doing that to its viewers?
The weakest segment is the one honoring Taylor. It is first of the five. The short film biography is filled with false, overstated "we" writing, as in, "We all fell like hopeless schoolboys. Her movies shaped our afternoons and our memories."
The first musical salute to Taylor, a performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Married Today" from the musical Company, is intended to be a wry, comical remark on Taylor's many marriages, but it misses that mark by quite a bit. Taylor's segment is saved in the final moments by the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington singing "There's Nothin' Like a Dame," in honor of her being named a Dame of the British Empire. The chorus' appearance recognizes Taylor's fund-raising efforts for AIDS research.
Rivera's salute opens with Harold Prince talking about how he, Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins had cast a "young dancer, singer and actress who was something of an unknown" in 1957 to play a character named Anita in this little play they were working on called West Side Story. That unknown was, of course, Rivera. From Prince's marvelous reminiscence to knockout stagings of "Dance at the Gym" from West Side Story and Valarie Pettiford's doing "All That Jazz," the salute to Rivera is as eloquent, muscular and moving as the work of the artist herself.
Placido Domingo is host for the tribute to Levine, the conductor with whom he has done 300 operas. But it is Rudolph Giuliani who sends a charge through the room when he comes onstage to talk about how much Levine has meant to the cultural life of New York City with his work at the Metropolitan Opera.
It is all prelude, though, to bass baritone Bryn Terfel, who goes out into the audience to bring the "Toreador Song" from Carmen to life in a way I've never seen done on television. The finale with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, Terfel, Domingo, Giuliani and the Choral Arts Society of Washington performing "It's a Grand Night for Singing" is all energy and joy.
The tributes for Jones and Simon are not in a league with those for Rivera and Levine, but each has its moments. The eloquence and grace of Sidney Poitier elevates the Jones segment, while Alicia Keys delivers an electrifying interpretation of Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." James Taylor and Alison Krauss aren't too shabby, either, in their reading of "The Boxer."
You don't need all the cutaway shots to the likes of President and Mrs. Bush, Sen. Ted Kennedy or Secretary of State Colin Powell during the program to be reminded that television is taking you to a place where politics and culture meet in our society.
Tonight's finale -- with a stage full of incredible talent and everyone standing in this magnificent glittering hall to sing "America the Beautiful" -- will send a message straight to the hair on the back of your neck that you are witnessing one of the great television rituals of national life.
What: The 25th Annual Kennedy Center Honors
When: 9 tonight
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: One of the great TV rituals of American life.