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True TV Tributes Deserve Hours, Not Moments
June 27, 2008  | By David Bianculli
 

singin-in-the-rain-cyd.jpgTonight's TV choices include several last-minute prime-time additions, programmed by their respective networks to honor recently deceased stars. Turner Classic Movies presents three movies by Cyd Charisse, and Home Box Office repeats George Carlin's final standup comedy special. These are very welcome moves, and ones from which other networks could learn a valuable lesson...

When Tim Russert died earlier this month, news organizations devoted hour after hour -- many hours in a row on Friday cable news the day he died, and several additional tribute hours on NBC, including Russert's own Meet the Press, in the days and weeks afterward.

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Whatever you watched, you were presented clip after clip of key moments from Russert's on-air triumphs: holding the dry-erase board during the 2000 election-night coverage, grilling politicians on Meet the Press, and so on. It was almost like, in a weird way, we were watching Russert's life pass before our eyes, with image after image somehow adding up to a life.

But nowhere, that I saw, did any broadcast or cable network present a sample of Russert's work undiluted. Here's an hour from, say, his first time hosting Meet the Press, or his best interviews. We got appetizers, but not meals. We could taste, but not chew. Certainly, in the wee hours on MSNBC and CNBC, there was room for such well-timed reruns.

Contrast that to when George Carlin died this week, and HBO quickly programmed two nights' worth of the comedian's old HBO specials on sister network HBO2, in prime time. The last of those specials, It's Bad for Ya, televised earlier this year, is presented tonight at 9 p.m. ET on HBO itself. It's worth seeing, certainly -- but watching those old specials, in their entirety, was a unique and revelatory way to watch an artist and his art mature.

george-carlin-on-location-a.jpg

Even the first special, 1977's George Carlin at USC, was wonderful to watch at full length. Back then, HBO was still so skittish about televising Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine that it had former 60 Minutes contributor Shana Alexander introduce the special, explaining the rawness -- and artistic merit -- of what was to come. Then, about an hour into the special, just before Carlin launched into his "Dirty" routine, HBO stopped the tape -- to invite viewers who may be offended by the upcoming material to leave with their sensitive sensibilities intact.

Can you imagine HBO pulling such a stunt today, midway through Def Comedy Jam? That's how far we've come, and Carlin's envelope-pushing, seen in that special (and again Wednesday) in all its unedited boldness, was no small part of the advance.

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Similarly, to be able to see Cyd Charisse dancing with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain tonight at 8 p.m. ET on TCM, and with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (10 p.m. ET) and Silk Stockings (midnight ET), is to see an artist blossom and radiate before our eyes. Not just in five-second clips, but in complete numbers, in entire movies.

Astaire liked to stage his dance sequences so there was minimal editing, so you could enjoy the totality of the performances and see the entire body at work. Seeing the entire body of work makes just as much sense, when paying tribute to an artist, and both Charisse and Carlin have been served well this week. And NBC is serving Carlin well this weekend, too, by repeating, in its entirety, his appearance as host of the very first edition of Saturday Night Live.

Other networks, please take note.

 

1 Comment

 

Hoppy said:

Dave:
Re Carlin, don't forget SNL's rerun of the first episode which he hosted.
Hop (You're right. That's tomorrow night. I'd already earmarked it as a Best Bet, but now I'm going to go edit it into my column. Keep thinking, Butch -- that's what you're good at... -- David B.)

Comment posted on June 27, 2008 2:27 PM

 
 
 
 
 
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