TV Review: ABC's 50th Anniversary

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May 20, 2003 by Ray Richmond

LOS ANGELES- Trying to boil down 50 years to three hours (including commercials) is no easy task.

Just ask anyone who has ever tossed a 50th wedding anniversary bash. But exec producer Don Mischer and his cohorts do a reasonably spiffy job here in catching most of the highlights, lowlights and midlights of ABC's purported half-century of existence. We say "purported" because ABC actually boasted a primetime schedule as early as 1948, which would in fact make it 55 years old. In Hollywood, clearly, even networks aren't immune to the obsession with trying to trim years from their lives. But "ABC's 55th Anniversary Celebration" obviously carries somewhat less cache for a sweep extravaganza.

Of course, this is also a precipitous time for the network to be using fuzzy math given the ongoing sorry state of its primetime fortunes. But again, this here is about celebration, not wallowing, and indeed ABC has had plenty to be proud of in its glorious history. The celebration touches all of the key areas with panache, giving it a sparkling (if sometimes token-driven) sheen.

Staged at the Pantages Theater and shot on film to give it a classier and more consequential look, the all-star retrospective trots out nearly every living soul who has ever meant anything to the network -- with the ghost of ABC's late news/sports impresario Roone Arledge hanging tantalizingly over the proceedings. We get reunions of the casts of "Welcome Back, Kotter" (complete with John Travolta), "The Brady Bunch," "The Mod Squad," "Happy Days," "Family Matters," "The Love Boat" and even the still-going "NYPD Blue." This serves mostly as a gauge for how poorly, or well, these people have aged. And "Dynasty's" Joan Collins looks significantly better and younger now than she ever did on the show, which points to the miracle of ... well, something.

Tellingly, David Caruso isn't present with the "NYPD" cast, nor is Ellen DeGeneres there for the brief tribute to "Ellen."

There are kicky moments scattered throughout, such as clips featuring the appearances of Harrison Ford on "Love, American Style," Tom Hanks on "Love Boat" (be very afraid), stars Ryan O'Neal on "Peyton Place" and Michael Douglas on "The Streets of San Francisco," Jodie Foster on "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" and Burt Reynolds on "The Dating Game." There's Sonny & Cher and the Jackson Five on "American Bandstand." And exes O'Neal and Farrah Fawcett (herself an ABC icon, of course, from "Charlie's Angels") arrive onstage together.

We also get clip packages galore, of course, paying self-homage to ABC's groundbreaking work in sports broadcasting (via the Olympics, "Wide World of Sports" and "Monday Night Football"), in longform movies and miniseries, in comedy and at the Oscars-- which is somehow missing the most electric Academy Awards moment of them all, which featured Charlie Chaplin in 1972.

Some things do indeed receive unnervingly short shrift, like the ABC News legacy (dispensed with in roughly five minutes of reflection from Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel) and most anything that predates the mid-1960s. There is, however, a little something for everybody in the star-studded special. And let it be said that while ABC may admit to being 50, it doesn't look a day over ... well, OK, 50.

Appearances by: Muhammad Ali, Tim Allen, Jim Belushi, LeVar Burton, Drew Carey, Richard Chamberlain, Dick Clark, Michael Cole, Joan Collins, Hugh Downs, Peter Falk, Farrah Fawcett, Michael J. Fox, Dennis Franz, Jennifer Garner, Dorothy Hamel, Florence Henderson, Bonnie Hunt, Peter Jennings, Jimmy Kimmel, Sugar Ray Leonard, Carl Lewis, Peggy Lipton, George Lopez, Susan Lucci, Joan Lunden, Jim McKay, Gavin MacLeod, John Madden, Camryn Manheim, Penny Marshall, Al Michaels, Joe Namath, Ryan O'Neal, John Ritter, Roseanne, John Travolta, Barbara Walters, Damon Wayans, Jaleel White, Cindy Williams, Clarence Williams III, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Winkler.