New Series: Living In TV Land

Thanks to our senior popular culture bloggers for letting me guest-post.

I had to write about this “thing” I saw on TV Land Sunday night, during the flight home from Florida.

It’s a new reality series, Living in TV Land, and it purports to “get behind the hype and hyperbole and into the real lives of some of television’s most popular icons.” That’s because the series will show the stars “playing themselves.” Among the first profiled: Barry “Greg Brady” Williams; former Monkee Davy Jones; Sherman “George Jefferson” Helmsley’; Fred Willard; and Dick Van Patten.

I could, if I wanted to, go all academic and talk about the “ontological impossibilities” of these profile programs’ ever showing us the “real” stars, since these stars are so used to being in front of the camera (D.A. Pennebaker discovered this long ago, when shooting the famous Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back). But the heck with any of that crap; I just want to talk about the premiere episode, featuring Canada’s greatest import not found on ice: William “T. J. Hooker” Shatner.

Okay, you got me. Shatner is known worldwide as Captain Kirk. We all loved that character, that series, those movies. He’s great in his own pompous, often self-mocking way. The main focus of the show is Shatner’s career revival, and especially his return to the recording studio, to reclaim the title “Canada’s Greatest Actor/Recording Artist.”

Note how I did not say “singer.” In the late sixties, Shatner recorded – in Europe, I think — an LP called The Transformed Man, an album of dramatic readings of poetry and a few actual songs, some of which have become “classics” of how-TV-stars-butcher-pop-music. There’s nothing quite as outrageous as his rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (though Shatner’s Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy gives him a run for his money with a version of “Proud Mary”). These are hysterical recordings, and the only mystery is whether or not they were intentionally so.

It is that history of those sixties records that made the Priceline “concert” commercials so brilliant. It’s one thing to have Shatner standing there singing “Two Tickets to Paradise” and selling Priceline’s services. That would in and of itself be hilarious. But those performances build off his work in the sixties – and if you remember those records, or even if you heard them sampled on Letterman as part of “Dave’s Record Collection” sketches, you fully appreciate that whoever came up with those Priceline ads was an absolute genius.

What I did not realize, watching those Priceline ads, was that Shatner was working with a real band, and used the opportunity to find his way into the recording studio, collaborating with none other than young Ben Folds! I should have known Folds was a geek at heart! Folds actually had Shatner guest vocal for him in 1998, and here he is quoted in the series as loving the challenge of trying to take Shatner’s spoken-word song lyrics and making them work with music. We see briefly the creation of the title track to the long-awaited album, Has Been, which sounds like a perversion of the theme from Rawhide. It’s brilliant. And this time, there’s no doubt that Shatner is in on the joke. He’s telling it.

The show gives us other glimpses into Shatner’s life – the happiness found in recent marriage (both he and his new wife lost their spouses tragically); the birth of a grandchild; chatting up on his plane with Nimoy and Kate “Captain Janeway” Mulgrew; embracing Patrick Stewart on stage at a convention; riding his horses; winning an Emmy for his role as a sleazy lawyer (which he now plays on Boston Legal). The interviews with his friends and coworkers like Candace Bergen, Nimoy, and Rene Auberjonois, are funny and of course full of backslapping uselessness – of course this is going to tell us how great Shatner is, since he’s the executive producer!

But it’s the music footage that still astonishes me, and I’m not sure I really know what to make of it.

There’s a brilliant montage as he sings a song called “I Want You To Be You,” which is a sarcastic love song that is intercut with images of Kirk and Spock, a playful acknowledgment of those fans who believe that Kirk and Spock are lovers (one hopes one day for some SNL sketch where Shatner and Nimoy do a Brokeback Mountain parody). The concert features Joe Jackson, one of my favorite artists of the New Wave era of pop music, harmonizing with Folds and Shatner (if there is such a thing as harmonizing with William Shatner). There’s a snippet of a great cover of Pulp’s “Common People.” And the crowd in the concert hall is eating this up! They’re chanting his name, howling – and this is not a Trekkie crowd, either. This is just nuts.

As the concert finishes, Folds asks, “Bill, can you do one more?” And Shatner says, “I can always do one more!” The crowd goes wild, the spotlight comes on, and there is Shatner on stage, proudly holding up his middle finger (the way one would hold one’s index finger to indicate “Number One!”), to wild applause. Cut to Shatner saying something about finally getting his just reward. Then back to the concert, where Folds plays those familiar psychedelic Lennon/McCartney notes: “Picture yourself on a boat by a river…” and the band does a rousing version of “Lucy,” with some fine singing by Jackson and Folds (sounding better than the old show Beatlemania), and Shatner, front and center, eating it all up.

Do I know any more about the real William Shatner than I did before getting aboard that plane? Of course not. But I got an earful of a great send-up on celebrity life. It was maddening, bewildering, but impossible to ignore.

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About T.B. White

lives in the New York City area with his wife and two daughters, 6 and 3. He is a college professor who has written essays about Media and the O.J. Simpson case, Woody Allen, and other areas of popular culture. He brings a unique perspective about parenting to families.com as the "fathers" blogger. Calling himself "Working Dad" is his way of turning a common phrase on its head. Most dads work, of course, but like many working moms, he finds himself constantly balancing his career and his family, oftentimes doing both on his couch.