The Kennedy Center Honors, the reliably stale but also satisfying tribute that CBS traditionally airs in the phantom zone between Christmas and New Year's, has long been in need of a little jolt. Some loyal viewers and Kennedy Center observers might have expected fresh ideas this year, after the center sacked its octogenarian Honors producer, George Stevens Jr., who had been at the helm since the event began in 1978.
But this year's show - recorded Dec. 6 in the center's Opera House and to be shoehorned into a two-hour telecast Tuesday night - is intent on a business-as-usual approach. Executive producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, whose credits include several Tony Awards shows, the Emmys, and Super Bowl halftime shows, deliver an efficiently forgettable night in the precise manner of the 37 previous Kennedy Center Honors that Stevens and his team produced.
That's not to say the show isn't without its charms - it always is, in the meaningfully noble way it lifts awareness of the hard, long work that constitutes an outstanding career in the performing and popular arts.
One cannot help but be moved by Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez's spoken tribute to recipient Rita Moreno (or Rosie Perez's take on Moreno's Emmy-winning Muppet Show version of "Fever" with Animal on drums) or the look of utter gratitude on recipient Cicely Tyson's face when CeCe Winans and the members of her namesake community school's chorus deliver a rousing rendition of "Blessed Assurance." And cellist Yo-Yo Ma gives his friend Seiji Ozawa a sublime performance of Tchaikovsky's "Andante Cantabile" - that rarest of sights on network TV.
Given the runaway success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it's harder to get a fix on the emotions (or lack of emotions) that accompany the show's tribute to filmmaker George Lucas. There are Imperial Stormtroopers, a brief medley of John Williams' scores for Lucas' blockbusters, some kind words from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and a cheeky hologram of Carrie Fisher - but there's definitely a feeling that the Star Wars ship has sailed without its iconic captain. It's left to Lucas' wife, Mellody Hobson, to stand up in the opera box and tentatively assure us that her husband is more than just the criticism-averse auteur who thought Jar Jar Binks was a good idea.
Hosted by Late Show's Stephen Colbert (who manages to make this obligatory chore seem like an actual treat, whether or not he considers it so), the show moves along with the same organizing principle as ever, honoring each recipient in an order that doesn't play favorites but attempts to keep what few viewers there are tuned in until a flashy finish that salutes the biggest (which is to say, most popular) musical act on this year's list.
Here, the producers likely ran into an unfortunate curve ball, after the Eagles begged off in late October, asking to postpone a year because of singer Glenn Frey's health issues. The Eagles' absence provides Colbert with his one laugh-out-loud line of the night, as he notes that the band looks forward to partaking next year, "The same way they made their music - together. And shirtless." Miranda Lambert comes out to sing "Desperado" (to whom? And why?) which feels as though it has no purpose other than to pad out some extra time.
The producers most certainly had a big rock-and-roll finish in mind, which instead rests with the oeuvre of Carole King.
And lucky for them. Even with an awkward use of scenes and cast members borrowed from the current Broadway show about the singer's life and success, the King tribute is full of hits and tender cameos - Janelle Monáe, James Taylor, and even Aretha Franklin (in such a fur coat) - and a perfectly medium-volume way to wrap things up.
I'm not sure much else could be expected from Kirshner and Weiss; bereft of the suspense and shenanigans of today's TV awards show format, the Kennedy Center Honors must hew to a certain Washington stiffness and legacy classiness that must be upheld, which makes it both a standard-bearer and, as the years go by, an outlier. It can't devolve into a comedy roast, nor could it easily partake in the provocative nature of today's celebrityville. With or without Stevens, The Kennedy Center Honors is a night of TV that's permanently destined - and duty-bound - to play it safe.