"ICONOCLASTS," which premieres tonight on the Sundance Channel, is a six-part documentary series, each episode of which pairs a famous person with another famous person who has influenced or impressed him -- or, in the case of Renee Zellweger and chosen subject Christiane Amanpour, her.
It is not a completely original idea, this sending a celebrity to catch a celebrity, but it's rare enough on TV to feel new. Whether all, or indeed any, of the subjects here are actually "iconoclasts" is debatable -- "independent" is more like it -- but the title is meant to signal that this is something hipper and smarter and less conventionally angled than a Barbara Walters special and, at least on the basis of the two episodes available for review, it is.
Television is, of course, full of famous people talking to and about one another, and about themselves, but usually under the flattening, flattering glare of studio lights, and in highly ritualized situations that prevent them from saying anything of actual interest. Often they have only come to sell you something, with perhaps a cute, embarrassing anecdote to demonstrate attractive human fallibility. They appear for a moment and are gone.
"Iconoclasts" takes a more casual, cozy, collegial approach, even as it profiles some of the planet's most successful people: The lineup -- which begins tonight with Samuel L. Jackson paying a visit to NBA legend Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons, and ends in December with Sundance Channel founder and figurehead Robert Redford interviewing old screen partner Paul Newman -- is absurdly impressive. (I await this last installment with almost stupid excitement.)
Multibillionaire media conglomerator Sumner Redstone, perhaps not coincidentally the head and majority stockholder (by a mile) of Viacom, which jointly owns the Sundance Channel, consents to be quizzed by movie and television producer Brian Grazer. Designer Tom Ford, who rescued Gucci from possible bankruptcy and has lent his glitter to YSL and Estee Lauder, tries to get to the bottom of artist Jeff Koons, who, whatever you think of his Duchamp/Warhol/Oldenburg/Rosenquist-esque magpie art, makes a ton of money off it. And TV chef Mario Batali pairs with R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. Really, just looking at the books, the series might have been more properly titled "Crowd Pleasers."
Of the two episodes available for review -- Jackson-Russell and Ford-Koons -- each takes an encouragingly different tack, though in each case the nominal interviewer becomes as much a subject as the interviewee.
Russell hosts Jackson on his "home court" of Seattle, where they mostly eat, golf and crack jokes, making a mildly competitive yet self-effacing, sweetly cross-generational mutual admiration society. Yet somehow they cover a lot of ground -- race, recognition, the value of hard work -- and we leave them feeling as if we have all learned something and shared an experience. (This episode, like most, is directed by Joe Berlinger, who also directed "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.")
Ford, meanwhile, approaches Koons, whom he visits in his Manhattan art factory, like an investigating journalist. (It will be, he says, "the first time I've ever spoken to him when I haven't had a few drinks.") Though a fan of Koons' creations, Ford remains unsure about the artist. And Koons, who adopts the blandly cheery affect of a B-movie serial killer, is not much help: He seems authentically smart one minute, and the next he is like a man merely imitating someone smart, as he either explains or rationalizes or improvises a ton of nonsense about his various works of art. (It is hard to tell.)
"I am quite perplexed," Ford says at the beginning, and he is no less perplexed at the end. It's nice, in a way, to see something so honestly inconclusive; there is plenty of room on television for remaining confused.
Where: Sundance Channel
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)