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It's a cheery return to 'Happy Days'

Reunion specials can be insipid, and I was fully dreading ABC's new exhumation of ''Happy Days." Shameless nostalgia binges, these hokey sweeps specials tend to aggrandize the mythic good old days as they elevate electronic confetti to the level of TV classic. They also gloss over ugly backstage truths, so that members of the reassembled cast inevitably gush over their costars and tearfully use the word ''family." It's as if each actor's sense of reality has been co-opted over the decades by the audience's need for happy endings and the corporate need for DVD promotion.

So I have to eat crow for loving every minute of ''Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 5. It's an unabashedly sentimental journey back to one of TV history's least important family sitcoms, a show that had none of the cultural relevance of ''All in the Family" and none of the brilliance of ''Seinfeld." And the two-hour special is a double-layered fluffernutter sandwich, since it's colored not only by the 1970s when the show was made but also by the 1950s nostalgia that it celebrated. Still, for Cunningham freaks, it's a satisfyingly flavorful bubble-gum chomp, like the 1994 ''Buddy Holly" video by Weezer that was set at Arnold's Drive-In.

All of the ''Happy Days" gang shows up tonight, including Marion Ross, Ron Howard, Tom Bosley, Scott Baio, Anson Williams, Don Most, and Henry Winkler, who also co-executive produced the special. Even Erin Moran, who avoided the show's previous reunion special in 1992, is on hand, wiping her still very wide eyes. And they all appear genuinely glad to be together, as they play softball and later gather at Arnold's. Last year, Howard was reunited with his ''Andy Griffith Show" cronies, and it was a socially awkward ceremony, particularly since Don Knotts was oddly distracted and forgetful. There was a sober respect in the air, for one another and for the series, but not a lot of sparkle. But tonight, you can see the chemistry flowing, with show creator Garry Marshall as the wry master of ceremonies and Ross and Bosley as the graceful hosts.

There are, of course, a few false notes. It wouldn't be a reunion show without them. First of all, ''Happy Days" premiered in January of 1974, after the initial 1971 pilot -- called ''New Family in Town" and modeled after ''Summer of '42" -- was rejected by ABC and burned off on ''Love American Style." The retitled series -- with the critical addition of the Fonz -- was bought by ABC only after ''American Graffiti" and the stage musical ''Grease" had become hits, but that was 31, not 30, years ago.

Also, none of the actors at the reunion cops to an awareness of the phrase ''Jump the Shark," which came out of an irredeemable episode of ''Happy Days" in which Fonzie insists on water skiing over a shark pen. The term, which refers to a series that has entered its creative death throes, has become a cultural touchstone in recent years. And while we meet the two actors who played Richie Cunningham's ''disappeared" older brother, Chuck, we don't get to hear them talk about how they feel about being the Stu Sutcliffes of TV sitcoms. After they're introduced, they don't even speak.

That said, the ''30th Anniversary Reunion" is a cheery two hours of memories, bloopers, practical jokes, and homage. There are no attempts to revise the show's image and inject it with Importance; it's just a genial look back at a show that oozed family unity and optimism at a time when divorce was the new trend. In its time, ''Happy Days" was the definition of comfort-food TV, as it steered clear of all the social upheaval of its time. Even its resident rebel, Fonzie, was a softie, a point that is made in one or two excruciating clips that show the leather-clad Winkler straining for dramatic effect. Ultimately, he became the show's most beloved character.

Howard, who removes his trademark baseball cap on a dare, seems particularly pleased to be back with his old posse. Having gone on to even greater success as an Oscar-winning movie director since his six years as Richard Cunningham, Howard calls the show ''my coming-of-age story." Bosley concurs, saying that ''Richard was Ron." At the same time, it's not a Howard-centric two hours, as we get to catch up with the grateful Williams (Potsie), the mustachioed Most (Ralph Malph), and the somewhat subdued Baio (Chachi). No one has much time to say anything, as the clips flow fast and furiously and Marshall squawks on, but it hardly matters. Anyone who cares enough about ''Happy Days" to watch this feel-good trip back to Milwaukee probably doesn't expect much depth.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion
On: ABC (Channel 5)
Time: Tonight, 8-10

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