‘Annie Live!’ Is the Last Dying Breath of Feel-Good TV

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.I think, perhaps, we have reached peak “it’s nice to watch something nice” television.For a while, this was a holiday treat.…

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This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

I think, perhaps, we have reached peak “it’s nice to watch something nice” television.

For a while, this was a holiday treat. A demonically deranged Sound of Music? A Christmas gift. An unhinged Peter Pan? A winter hug. That Hairspray live performance? Well… that was actually brilliant and I refuse to shade it.

But in the last two years (LOL at us now adding an “s” to “year” while talking about our COVID reality) things that we consume from a point of grace because they’re cheerful and well-intentioned aren’t just annual treats. They are constants.

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We’ve spent these—again—years giving thanks for the diverting, wholesome antidotes to our cynical, nihilistic existence. Quality doesn’t matter when the public service is this essential: making us feel happy in spite of [gestures at the world] all of this.

And yet, everything has a breaking point.

Annie Live! was a good version of the musical Annie. That isn’t intended as a compliment.

We could convene a salon to discuss the questions that this show brings up from a 2021 perspective. What is Annie, if not government propaganda? Why do we praise Hamilton when Annie pioneered the idea of Cabinet meetings as a musical number? Who will be brave enough to allow Daddy Warbucks to have hair? And, mostly, how have we gaslit ourselves into thinking Annie is a good musical?

This is where the tension lies. I can make fun of so many aspects of Thursday night’s Annie Live! broadcast on NBC, but those things are an issue with the material itself and, mostly, not to do with the wholesome enthusiasm with which the production was mounted. And, on this cold December night, it was a genuine hoot to snuggle into my throw blanket with a glass of wine and do as my sexuality compels: support Megan Hilty’s career in any way, shape, or form.

It’s rewarding to see that “hate-watching” has evolved to “begrudging appreciation-watching.” Those live versions of Sound of Music and Peter Pan were Patients Zero and One of the “hate-watching” phenomenon, where people tuned in with ravenous giddiness to mock and insult.

As a person who adores musical theater and every day wishes he was talented enough to do it, it’s a pleasure to have these live musicals broadcasts, both for families to watch and for bitter gay men drunk and alone on their couch. When I scrolled through Twitter Thursday night, I saw people poking fun, sure. But it was mostly in the spirit of “aren’t we lucky that this even exists to make fun of?”

The question remains, however, of how long we can just feel lucky, and not feel owed. As in owed something good. Or how long we have to say, “Well, it was nice to see something nice,” when something like Annie Live! airs, because everything else about our lives is so horrible.

I did not enjoy being confronted with my sleep-paralysis demon—Harry Connick Jr. in a bald cap—on this unassuming Thursday night. I did not need to reflexively applaud (from my couch?) after the most talented musical theater chorus members in the industry sang a protest song about Herbert Hoover. I did not need to see Mrs. Pugh have her dreams dashed because Oliver Warbucks will be working through dinner and think, “I want to know her story.”

And yet, I cried. Yes, I cried while watching Annie Live!. I have become a parody of myself.

Celina Smith, the young girl who was cast as Annie, is astonishing. The beauty of her performance though wasn’t just the preternatural belting to “Maybe” and “Tomorrow”—which, to continue my point about this being a worse musical than we remember, both happen in the first 10 minutes of the show—it was in the shocking emotion and pathos she brought to the book scenes. Annie has a notoriously terrible script. This is an award-worthy accomplishment.

We are all blessed when Nicole Scherzinger is performing for us. At some point we will all have to reckon with the fact that Nicole Scherzinger is the greatest entertainer of our generation. That she hasn’t been given the showcases she deserves is Hollywood’s own embarrassment, but at least she makes a meal out of every morsel she gets. Do yourself a favor and search out her performance as Maureen in Rent on YouTube. Google “Nicole Scherzinger” and “Phantom of the Opera” and prepare for your jaw to drop. I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone watch the TV-musical version of Dirty Dancing, but know this: She was in it, and gave the performance of a lifetime.

We are all blessed when Nicole Scherzinger is performing for us. At some point we will all have to reckon with the fact that Nicole Scherzinger is the greatest entertainer of our generation.

I was impressed by just how many different characters Taraji P. Henson played Thursday night. I’m not sure which was Miss Hannigan, but she was having a lot of fun and so was I. Whatever there is to say about Annie, “Easy Street” slaps, so we were lucky enough to see it performed by Henson, Tituss Burgess, and Hilty. Megan Hilty, forever flawless. (Is there a role in the world more fun to play than Lily St. Regis?)

The kids were great. This is 2021 Annie. Being precocious and able to harmonize isn’t enough. Now we’re flipping. We’re doing aerials. We’re turning “Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” into such a bop that Kevin is getting up and dancing along with them.

There is a song about New York City called “NYC” featuring tap dancers, a former contestant from So You Think You Can Dance, and who I can only assume was a recent Tisch grad belting for her life. It was a riot. It was lunacy. I will be singing it in my head every time I leave my apartment for the next two weeks.

These things were all… nice. But Annie Live! was bad. And I hate myself for saying it. I feel like I’m not allowed to say it.

We’re still in this space where we are supposed to appreciate the effort and intention of anything like this. Everything is darkness, and here are some talented people trying to bring some light.

Well, if they’re so talented then why isn’t the light a little brighter?

This is a messy review because I’m not even really panning the show. I genuinely loved all three hours of watching Annie Live! on Thursday night. When else can you cancel all plans because you’re about to watch Nicole Scherzinger jauntily whisper “we got Annie” and Taraji P. Henson live her life while making a cartoon mess out of Miss Hannigan?

I’m just more curious about when we’re going to allow ourselves to have standards again. I’ve appreciated nice things for a while now. But at some point, Selling Sunset isn’t a fun distraction, it is actually the worst show on television. Emily in Paris isn’t escapism; it is absolute trash made for you to forget you’re watching while you scroll through your phone. And Annie Live! isn’t just a holiday event, but something worth adjudicating as television.

Then again, who is the asshole who is going to write the “That Annie Thing They Did on NBC for Families to Watch Together Was Bad” piece? I guess, at this point, it’s me.

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