We all know by now that some reality shows are far from spontaneous. But most talk shows are even more staged, especially when it comes to celebrity interviews.
By now, the formula is set in stone: The celebrity stops by to plug his or her latest movie/record, and the host magically knows what to ask to elicit a suitably humorous anecdote. Tom Hanks and David Letterman are one duo that can make this stale format sing, but more often these chat show appearances, which are planned and molded well in advance, tend to be mighty predictable.
Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ... (8 p.m. Wednesday, Sundance Channel ) is an attempt to escape that rigid talk show format. This hourlong series has been described as an Inside the Actors Studio for musicians, which is a fairly accurate assessment.
Having said that, movie trivia is probably more accessible to a wide audience than lengthy discussions of influential but somewhat obscure singers and songwriters. For that reason, Spectacle will probably appeal most strongly to music fans whose collections began in the vinyl era.
Costello certainly knows a lot about music, though he isn't necessarily a natural interviewer. He appears a little nervous and even obsequious with Bill Clinton, who discusses his musical influences on the Dec. 17 episode. Costello seems more comfortable with fellow musicians such as Elton John, the first guest on the show, and Lou Reed (who appears Dec. 10).
The show works best when artists such as John and Reed discuss the songwriters and musicians who influenced them most profoundly; that's the sort of passion and engagement that is missing from most celebrity interviews. John and Costello have a fine old time talking at length about artists such as Billy Stewart, Laura Nyro and David Ackles, and John even takes to the piano to demonstrate the ways in which those artists influenced his own songs.
As with Inside the Actors Studio, the discussion of the nuts and bolts of the craft can be illuminating. Throughout their four-decade partnership, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin have never been in the same room during the composition of a song, John explains. They'd kill each other, he jokes, and adds that the separate creative processes have ensured that the pair has never had a serious argument.
Clinton, by the way, does not play the sax during his hourlong appearance, but he does talk about how being a musician made him someone who notices details. All in all, however, the Clinton chat feels a little long and is generally short on substance.
Though Costello's discussions with musicians falter from time to time, they also contain quite a few interesting stories and conversations. And whenever things threaten to slow down, the musicians just pick up their instruments and sing instead of speaking.