Elvis Costello's talk show.

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Dec. 2 2008 6:14 PM

Elvis Costello's Talk Show

The rocker chats with such luminaries as Bill Clinton and Elton John.

Singer/musician Elvis Costello attends the Sundance Channel's debut of 'Spectacle.
Elvis Costello

Inasmuch as its host seems assured of escaping its 13-episode run with his dignity intact, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With … (Sundance, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) is a rousing success. To hear that a favorite artist will settle in for a stint as a chat-show impresario is to fret that he's heading out to pasture for a while to chew cud and make milk for mild cheese. It is a relief to see that Costello allows himself no bit of tackiness beyond the frequent donning of a bolo tie. Only occasionally does he try to anesthetize the way that you feel.

At the far end of the title's ellipsis, we find such music-world luminaries as Elton John, Tony Bennett, James Taylor, and Smokey Robinson. All in all, it is a group that invites cuddling, if you make exceptions for the likes of Lou Reed, who turns up as always with his skin looking like papyrus and his wit seeming drier yet. Costello opens each episode by belting out a relevant song—Elton's "Bordertown," Lou's "Femme Fatale"—thus getting its best moment out of the way so that he can settle in David Frost-style, gripping a clipboard in his palms, showcasing a discerning wince behind his eyeglass frames. The interviews forgo marches through careers in favor of hops across defining moments. From time to time, guests pop behind a piano or a hand mic to illustrate a point or perform a number, and it is good television, even at those moments when Spectacle risks assuming the self-congratulatory upper-middlebrow aura of a PBS pledge-week special.

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But Costello, unlike public television, asks viewers like you for nothing but your attention, which he rewards with intimate assessments of songcraft and the underappreciated architects of modern pop. Elton John rhapsodizes about Laura Nyro. Lou Reed eulogizes Doc Pomus. Tony Bennett—well, Bennett breaks the news that "Cole Porter was tops" and that Leonardo da Vinci was really very talented. However, Bennett is an American treasure, so what can you do beyond sneering that the proper place for such a treasure is a humidity-controlled case at the Smithsonian? But you can't even maintain your sneer properly, as everyone in sight is so winningly modest, even Bill Clinton, the guest two weeks hence.

Costello opens the Clinton episode by powering through his namesake's "Mystery Train," continuing the time-honored tradition of identifying the former president with the eternal King—see Greil Marcus from 2000: "The idea of Clinton's presidency as an Elvis movie (presumably the 1967 Double Trouble, where nightclub singer Guy Lambert is pursued by both a smitten seventeen-year-old heiress and a calculating woman his own age) is almost irresistible." Clinton, encouraged by such queries as "Is there any place for music in preserving spiritual solace?," then begins a kind of free-form spoken-word jazz piece touching on diplomacy, crisis management, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Nina Simone, the sax collection at his presidential museum, and the time the Austrian ambassador arranged waltz lessons for Chelsea. The improvisation is at once absolutely soporific and utterly remarkable. "I'm not sure I could have become president," he says at one point, "if I hadn't been exposed to music, played in my school band, learned how to compete, learned how to handle defeat." Oh, I think he would have managed. Anyone with the talent for BS that such a statement requires is a political natural.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Whereas Costello & Co. charm the audience into lull, the host of Shatner's Raw Nerve (Biography Channel, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) keeps his audience riveted, such is the Twilight Zone force of his hypnotic weirdness. In cannot be said that William Shatner—Star Trek's Captain Kirk, Boston Legal's Denny Crane, kitsch's senior statesman—emerges from his talk-show-host moonlighting with his dignity intact, as that was shattered years ago. Here, Shatner positions himself as the businesslike leader of a berserk therapy session. No, literally, that's how he positions himself: On the set, the right arm of his chair faces the right arm of his guest's from a distance of mere inches. Balanced on a meaty elbow, Shatner leans into the conversation like a bad-cop version of Barbara Walters or a confrontational philosopher of the self. The first episode records his sincere attempt to penetrate the core of the being of Valerie Bertinelli, the TV-movie fixture, celebrity divorcée, and weight-loss spokesmodel.

"Is there sin and do you have to pay for sin?" "Are you a nurturer?" "I'm trying to find the moment where you went, 'Oh, my god!' " Are you that interested in the inner life of Valerie Bertinelli? Not even Valerie Bertinelli is that interested in the inner life of Valerie Bertinelli, but she seems pleased to have been asked.

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