By CARYN JAMES
Published: May 8, 2002
Try not to weep if you missed ''CBS: 50 Years From Television City,'' the network's loving tribute to (get out your handkerchiefs) its studio building. There are plenty more chances to get choked up during this emotional television month. In ''20 Years of Must-See TV,'' NBC will celebrate something dear to the hearts of all viewers, the network's ratings dominance on Thursday nights. (The program doesn't flinch from the traumatic moment when ''Frasier'' moved to Tuesdays.) ABC will look back at ''That's Incredible!'' letting us relive those exhilarating moments that disappeared from our lives back in 1984 along with the show's believe-it-or-not tidbits. We're promised another look at a 2,000-person human domino chain.
Maybe the networks think we all own stock in them and care, but one thing's for sure: Carol Burnett has a lot to answer for.
It was ''The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers,'' a cast reunion and compilation of clips from her old variety show, that became a surprise ratings hit in November and set off this ludicrous deluge of nostalgia. NBC had already been planning specials to celebrate its 75th anniversary (if you count back to radio days), but the Burnett show made the networks act more sheeplike than ever, offering at least 17 clip shows and 4 cast reunions during the May sweeps. A recent Fox special celebrated four whole years of ''That 70's Show,'' which amounts to nostalgia about nostalgia.
These shows serve a purpose: they offer an irresistible opportunity to keep up with celebrity surgery. So many unnaturally wide eyes are on screen this month that it looks like E.T.'s relatives have taken over television. But there are more practical reasons for the overload of clips and reunions. The recycled shows are cheap to produce and presumably foolproof, offering entertainment that audiences have already embraced. And as many people in and outside the networks have observed, they are comfort food for a nerve-racking time.
But the soothing appeal of the shows is not assured; most of the ratings have been middling. And their place in the television landscape is more complicated than it might seem. These televised security blankets offer a counterpoint to the cutthroat reality shows that are still thriving and moving to further extremes, like the recent naked edition of ''Fear Factor.'' When Ralph Kramden ate dog food on ''The Honeymooners,'' it was by accident; now worms are a delicacy on reality shows. Clips and reunions function as extreme unreality shows.
The most surprising recent hits, ''The Bachelor'' and ''The Osbournes,'' work because they satisfy both extremes at once. ''The Bachelor,'' with two dozen women competing for a marriage proposal from one man, has a retro soul. Yet, its up-to-the-minute veneer features ruthless competition and sexual freedom. And beyond all the bleeping on ''The Osbournes'' there is a tight family in which Ozzy Osbourne warns his children about the evils of drugs. (''Just look at me,'' he says, his hands perpetually shaking.) When he goes on tour and the family shows up to surprise him on his birthday, he asks his wife, the now-famous Sharon, if ''the babies'' (their teenage children) have come along. What could be sweeter? It's that tension between the manners of today and the longing for a simpler past that best captures the present moment, when so much seems askew. Few shows pull that off.
No wonder the nostalgia shows, looking backward in such a blinkered way, fail to generate much excitement. Most are triumphs of packaging, with bogus claims of something new. A reunion of the ''Cheers'' cast playing their old characters on that show's spinoff, ''Frasier,'' was a lamely written partial reunion. (Ted Danson wasn't there; he was competing against ''Frasier'' in the dreadful but successful CBS mini-series ''Living With the Dead.'') A ''St. Elsewhere'' reunion on ''Scrubs'' meant a couple of scenes in which actors from the old hospital series turned up as doctors, though not their old characters.
Even the fresh material seems old, like Michael Jackson's performance on the ''American Bandstand'' 50th anniversary special or Cher's on the 10th anniversary celebration of ''The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.''
The promised glimpses of long-unseen moments from ''The Honeymooners'' on its 50th anniversary special on Monday included a horrible musical number; it was kind to keep the clip short. Otherwise, there were classic scenes we can catch every night on reruns. And if we don't need a ''Honeymooners'' retrospective, there's no excuse for ''Everybody Loves Raymond: The First Six Years,'' a recent tribute to a show available six times a week.
So far, the one major ratings success for a nostalgia show this month almost deserved it. Sunday's three-hour extravaganza, ''NBC 75th Anniversary Special,'' was a mix of live appearances and clips that until its floundering final hour was funny and brisk. Produced by Lorne Michaels, it included a touch of the irreverence of his ''Saturday Night Live.'' As Jerry Seinfeld said opening the show, ''Our mood is festive, our tone is self-aggrandizing."
More typically, NBC and the other networks take themselves and their branding more seriously than any viewer ever would. When you see a promo for this Thursday's ''E.R.,'' a flashback to Dr. Green's last days, and hear the solemn announcer promise ''an 'E.R.' to cherish,'' what can you do except laugh, even if you're sorry to lose the guy? When is the last time you heard anyone in real life say, ''I think I'll watch a little must-see TV''?
You will hear plenty of platitudes from the other side of the screen, though. ''I loved going to work,'' Phylicia Rashad, who played Bill Cosby's wife, recalls at the start of the two-hour ''Cosby Show: A Look Back'' (one of the few available in advance for review). We can make a reckless assumption that the same will be true when the cast reminisces on ''M*A*S*H: 30th Anniversary Reunion Special'' and ''Mary Tyler Moore Reunion.''
''L.A. Law: The Movie'' is the only genuine, fully original reunion in sight, and it's a perfectly pleasant if unexciting diversion. Harry Hamlin holds the film together and demonstrates that he can still charm as Michael Kuzak, who has stopped practicing law but goes back to help a man he unsuccessfully defended for murder a decade before. Nearly every actor from the old series is worked into the plot (except Jimmy Smits), and they spend a lot of time on dialogue like this:
And, ''Hey, Douglas.''
Or, ''Hey, Leland.''
Like ''Hill St. Blues,'' ''L.A. Law'' was fast, tough and groundbreaking, but this mild, efficient movie reveals how much those qualities have been overtaken by series like ''The Practice.'' Before he created ''The Practice,'' David E. Kelley was an ''L.A. Law'' writer; he had nothing to do with this reunion. More important, Steven Bochco, a creator of both ''Hill St.'' and ''L.A. Law,'' was not directly involved with the movie and is called ''an unseen cheerleader'' in the production notes. The truly creative people in television have better things to do than look back.
But as programmers search for sure things, that's exactly where they're looking. The so-called new shows being considered for the fall include remakes of ''The Twilight Zone,'' ''The Lone Ranger,'' ''Family Affair'' and ''The Time Tunnel.'' If we did land in a time tunnel, who could tell the difference?
More Nostalgia Coming Soon
''L.A. Law: The Movie,'' Sunday on NBC
''Mary Tyler Moore Reunion,'' Monday on CBS
''NBC's Funniest Outtakes,'' Tuesday on NBC
''M*A*S*H: 30th Anniversary Reunion Special,'' May 17 on Fox
''The Cosby Show: A Look Back,'' May 19 on NBC
''20 Years of Must-See TV,'' May 20 on NBC
''That's Incredible: The Reunion,'' May 21 on ABC
''The Most Outrageous Game Show Moments,'' May 22 on NBC
20 Years of Must See TV (2002) (TV)
Host: Eric McCormack