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Look Who's Talking -- On TV, That Is -- And Who's Shockingly Good At It
December 3, 2008  | By David Bianculli
Don't look now -- or, rather, DO look now -- but there are some new TV talk show hosts in town, and they're unexpectedly fabulous. Almost shockingly so: William Shatner? Elvis Costello?

Yes, and yes. Big time.

Elvis Costello's new weekly hour-long series, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..., is a Sundance Channel offering that mixes music and talk, but stresses the latter. And stresses, more than anything else, a detailed and passionate discussion of early influences and sometimes overlooked artists. It's an hour of discovery, and it's simply wonderful.


Tonight's opener (9 p.m. ET) features, as Costello's guest, Elton John, one of the show's producers. Each week, Costello and his band open by playing a song associated with that week's guest, and Costello and his guest close with a duet performance. Tonight, the closing number isn't an Elton John song, but their rendition of "Down River," by David Ackles.

If you don't know who Ackles is, this hour will tell you, as Elton John reveals, with infectious enthusiasm, the early influences on his songwriting and performance styles. Who knew that one of Elton's first piano-playing heroes was Leon Russell? Or that Elton, sidling up to the piano, could mimic Russell's heavy-handed piano playing perfectly? (And his Southern drawl, much less perfectly.)

If you're old enough to have them in your collection, this hour will have you digging out old albums by not only Ackles and Russell, but Laura Nyro, Van Morrison and The Band. More important, if you're younger and haven't heard of them, this hour may steer you in their directions.

"We're music crazy, both of us," Elton says proudly, and they're passing on their insanity like a religion. Their joint craziness -- Costello's pointed questions, Elton's unguarded answers -- makes Spectacle a very satisfying hour. Taped in front of an audience, but not pandering to it, this Sundance series is like eavesdropping on a late-night, post-show conversation among fellow musicians. What a joy.


Another new, stunningly good talk show is William Shatner's new weekly series on the Biography Channel network. Shatner's Raw Nerve premiered last night, with a double-bill of half-hour conversations -- one with Valerie Bertinelli, the next with Tim Allen. They're repeated tonight at 11 p.m. ET on Biography, and Saturday at 7 a.m. on A&E, and both are really, really worth watching.

It's astounding, really, how watchable a series Shatner's Raw Nerve is, and how simple. No audience. A rinky-dink studio set, with two plush chairs facing each other, pushed together at such an intimate angle that Allen jokingly calls them "a love seat." And Shatner has no tablet, no cards, no notes. He just leans in, and listens, and keeps pressing with follow-up questions.


What kinds of questions? That's what makes it so fascinating. With Bertinelli, his backyard neighbor, he wants to hone in on her concept of guilt and sin, and why she's more forgiving of others than of herself. With Allen, Shatner is most curious not about how Allen fell into addiction, but how quickly he crawled out of it.

Both conversations happen to touch on faith, and both get to childhood dreams and traumas, and securities and insecurities, whether as performers or in everyday life. Neither Bertinelli nor Allen seems to be remotely "on." No playing for the camera, no playing for time. No plugging of new projects.

It's just talk, and I'm flabbergasted at how good Shatner is at this right out of the box. It's amazing enough how many times this man has reinvented himself, from TV Golden Age young turk to Star Trek captain to over-the-top song stylist, all the way to self-ironic commercial pitchman and newly iconic Denny Crane.

But the week before Denny Crane says goodbye on ABC's superb Boston Legal, who would have thought William Shatner would have found yet another triumphant new line of work? Yet he has.

Shatner's Raw Nerve is no vanity project. It's a wonderful one.




Kirk Woodward said:

I'm so glad you felt the way I did about Shatner's program last night. I was dumbfounded at how he instantly moved to the front of the line. He listens! He responds! It sounds so simple, but it's so rare.

Comment posted on December 3, 2008 10:47 AM

Phillip R. Crabb said:

I find myself writing this note "late" this year, but will belatedly express my annual 'thanks' for your kind commentaries on Christmas classics "Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

It's uncanny that these two shows (amongst very few others) have kept themselves 'current' over the last 40 years. It's significant that both have still scored high in ratings, even after many network changes.

I remember back in the sixties, when one would check the TV Guide to see when these were on. When they were scheduled, it was talked about ahead of time at school and even church with as much anticipation as things like Red Skelton's Christmas Show.

Why had a "children's" show stuck with so many of us from that time? Pehaps, beyond being very well-produced shows, they reflect a simpler era for all of us, when we still had the time and opportunity to focus on the Holiday season.

Although readily available on DVD, these two show remain uniquely appropriate to view as a family, and to hold in high anticipation.

They are representative of what should be considered as the best of holiday traditions.

Thanks again for your consistent high regard for these two Christmas classics, the best of the Holiday Season to you and your family. (Right back at you -- and thanks! -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 3, 2008 11:30 AM

Marlark said:

Are you Shatting me? Can't wait to watch. Hey, what about "Barbary Coast?" (I forgot about "Barbary Coast," which, I suspect, is the proper response. Let me know what you think after you see Shatner in talk-show mode. Pretty impressive. -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 3, 2008 1:26 PM

Jim said:

I don't get Sundance or Biography channels on my cable package, but I wish the late-night talk shows, particularly Letterman and Craig Ferguson, would get one good, interesting guest and talk with him or her for 40 minutes instead of running through 2 guests at 10 minutes each and a couple lame skits.

Comment posted on December 3, 2008 6:02 PM

ceolaf said:

I just finished last night's Pushing Daisies.

Kristin Chenoweth is the bomb. So many levels of on. So much expression in her face. So much energy. So much talent.

How can you not write about her every week?

And if another network can pick up Scrubs, why can't another network pick up Pushing Daisies?

Comment posted on December 3, 2008 11:59 PM
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