Inasmuch as its host seems assured of escaping its 13-episode run with his dignity intact, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With … (9 p.m. Wednesdays, Sundance Channel) 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 to chew cud and make milk for mild cheese. It's a relief to see that Costello allows himself no bit of tackiness beyond the frequent donning of a bolo tie.
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's 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 — "Bordertown" for Elton, Lou's own "Femme Fatale" — thus getting its best moment out of the way so that he can settle in David Frost—style, grip a clipboard in his palms and showcase a discerning wince behind his eyeglass frames. The interviews forgo career marches 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. It's good television, even at those moments when Spectacle risks the self-congratulatory, upper-middlebrow aura of a PBS pledge-week special.
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. 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 this week's guest, Bill Clinton.
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 17-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 that touches on diplomacy, crisis management, Nina Simone, the sax collection at his presidential museum and the time the Austrian ambassador arranged waltz lessons for Chelsea.
The improvisation is 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 email@example.com