What's Worth Watching: The Kennedy Center Honors on CBS for Tuesday, December 29

Matt Roush
Kennedy-Center-Honors
John P. Filo/CBS

The 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors  (Tuesday, Dec 29, 9/8c, CBS)

While each of this year's Kennedy Center Honors recipients is exceedingly worthy, a group admirably and notably diverse in accomplishment and heritage, the producers made a wise choice in saving the most rousing tribute for last. Who in their right mind would want to follow 1994 honoree Aretha Franklin's roof-raising rendition of Carole King's (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman?

The annual Kennedy Center Honors telecast is always a classy affair, but this year's is particularly moving and inspiring as it celebrates groundbreaking entertainers who broke racial barriers. First up is Rita Moreno, one of the precious few EGOTs (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), a Puerto Rican pioneer whose Hollywood triumph as Anita in West Side Story is recalled in a production number of "America," led by Karen Olivo (who won a Tony in the most recent Broadway revival). Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez gets choked up introducing the woman who now guests as her grandma on the CW comedy, and Lin-Manuel Marinda—who's well on his way to a future Honor if he creates more hits on the scale of Hamilton—notes, "[Moreno] made miracles happen for the chance to perform for us."

The timeliest honoree may be George Lucas, who created the Star Wars phenom that has sp dominated this holiday season's pop-culture landscape. C-3PO, R2D2 and a hologram Carrie Fisher kick off his tribute, which includes testimonials from former honorees Steven Spielberg (2006) and Martin Scorsese (2007) and a symphonic medley of Lucas's hit-movie themes.

Cicely Tyson, seemingly ageless in her 90s (she turned 91 shortly after this ceremony), is saluted by contemporaries including Tyler Perry, Viola Davis—whose mother she plays on How To Get Away With Murder—and Kerry Washington. They praise her for her strength and integrity in bringing to life iconic roles in Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (a clip from which should inspire an instant rewatch of that TV-movie classic). Tears flow as CeCe Winans delivers the gospel classic "Blessed Assurance"—which had a significant presence in Tyson's Tony-winning performance in the recent The Trip to Bountiful revival—and she is joined by members of a New Jersey school of performing arts that bears Tyson's name.

The classical world is well represented by conducting great Seiji Ozawa, who's visibly moved when 2011 honoree Yo-Yo Ma leads an ensemble in an exquisite rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Andante Cantabile."

And then, in the finest Kennedy Center Honors tradition, comes the final tribute—to prolific singer-songwriter Carole King—which gets the well-heeled audience on its feet. Members of the Broadway cast of Beautiful (which tells King's life story) provide the narration for this segment, setting up musical numbers performed by Janelle Monae, James Taylor, Sara Bareilles, and the truly legendary and still breathtaking Aretha Franklin. You'll feel the earth move, for sure.