Among the many pleasures of the increasingly vital classic-movies channel TCM is that it doesn’t air commercials. Without any sponsors in the picture, TCM only has to answer to cable operators—who, according to Variety, are mostly happy just to be able to give the oldsters something good to watch at no additional charge—and thus the channel enjoys a certain kind of curatorial freedom. It is free to indulge good taste (its current Rosalind Russell festival, for instance), a cautiously academic approach to film history (a recent series on Asian image in film encompassing both Charlie and Jackie Chan), and perverse whims: Who would be up at 5:45 in the morning watching Man of La Mancha but Don Quixote himself?
We’ll never know—being commercial-free, TCM goes unmeasured by ratings services—but its management imagines an audience divided between nostalgia-minded seniors and devoted movie lovers. Approximately 180,000 such people subscribe to TCM’s Now Playing, a monthly listing guide. What a fantastic anachronism!—a handsome glossy pamphlet to be dog-eared and scrawled on, a booklet designed for crazy Upper West Siders of all ages and locales.
Though some people in TCM’s devoted movie-lover demographic are surely tacky enough to call themselves cinephiles, the network itself puts on no such airs. Ubiquitous host Robert Osborne is serious about enjoying movies and jolly about everything else. Actress Rose McGowan has recently been co-hosting, with Osborne, the weekend showcase The Essentials, on which she plays pixie, muse, and moll to his clean-shaven Santa Claus. She read an introduction to The Apartment that, while thoroughly unpretentious, was still keen enough to note that Jack Lemmon “hit the perfect note of alienated humor” in the lead role. Now TCM gives us Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence (Mondays at 8 p.m. ET), a chat show that’s warm, insightful, and only about 30 percent too snazzy for its own good.
Mitchell, best known as a film critic, comes to TCM by way of institutions including National Public Radio, Paramount Pictures, Harvard University, and the New York Times—a tenure I remember best for Mitchell’s awesome review of the first Pirates of the Caribbean but mostly for his having (totally, tenderly, embarrassingly) gone gaga over the lovely Thandie Newton. This is a journalist who knows a good boondoggle when he sees one, and among the many influences of Under the Influence are the panel discussion, the post-panel Q and A, and the strategically flattering post-Q-and-A bull session.
Mitchell’s other big influence is Pauline Kael, of course: There’s the brassy double-entendre of the show’s title—a name exactly as obnoxious as I Lost It at the Movies. In the interviews, Mitchell digs at his guest’s filmic inspirations and obsessions—and they respond in Kaelian rambles of association—but the high-hat on the soundtrack, the dangling bulbs in the studio, and the daring narrowness of Mitchell’s lapels also suggest a swinging low-key party. The show tries to pretend it’s been shot inside a champagne glass at Cannes and very nearly pulls it off.
As the situation requires, Mitchell also draws on the interviewing styles—variously confrontational and ass-kissy—of Peter Bogdanovich, Charlie Rose, and James Lipton. In the episode that airs tonight, he gets the now-late Sydney Pollack going about Gene Kelly’s dancing, and Pollack compares Kelly’s physicality to Burt Lancaster, which is the kind of throwaway gem that shows like this should exist to mine. Better yet, the second episode finds Mitchell uncovering new facets of Bill Murray’s weirdness. Murray starts out the half-hour looking rumpled, gray, and mildly suicidal. He ends it with a glow after having gassed on marvelously about screwball comedies and fast-talking dames. His throwaway gem elucidated the flexibility and longevity of Barbara Stanwyck by favorably comparing her to Bea Arthur—a line so odd it has to be sincere.