William Shatner with guest Judge Judy Sheindlin on the set of "Raw… (Bio )
I think we can take William Shatner off the "Oprah Replacement" list, but that doesn't mean he isn't an acolyte. Although his show “Shatner’s Raw Nerve,” now entering its second season on the Biography Channel, obviously purports to be more intentionally confrontational than Winfrey ever has, Shatner takes more than a few cues from the master. He talks a lot about family, encourages his guests to examine their feelings, and is happy to share his own experience with whatever topic is currently on hand.
Most important, he uses the instant intimacy of his own celebrity to establish an initial bond with his guest. He may not be Oprah, but who doesn't know, and to some extent love, William Shatner? Just having him want to talk to you connects you somehow to an icon of popular culture. (Given the odd S-shaped conversation-chair he uses for his interviews, that connection is almost literal.)
But Shatner is a man who believes that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, a motto that served him well in "Boston Legal" but not so much here. His first interview of this season is with Rush Limbaugh, a man well known to raw nerves everywhere.
Yet the first half of his interview is spent breathlessly asking the controversial conservative radio host all about the work ethic of his daddy and granddaddy, which is so uninteresting you know it is just a way of easing into the inevitable. And indeed, halfway through, Shatner attempts to seize the issue by the lapels, asking a series of half-formed questions about Limbaugh's tendency toward vitriol and how precisely his image of a free and democratic America differs from that of the current administration.
Shatner pinpoints the issue of healthcare as an area in which government regulation and intervention might actually be beneficial. Scoffing, Limbaugh asked how decent healthcare differed from a house on the beach -- some people have bungalows, some people have mansions. Healthcare, he said, does not have moral ascendancy over real estate.
It was a terrific moment that begged for a follow-up but, strangely, Shatner backed off. Somehow, the subject moved on to other less controversial topics: Limbaugh's brush with deafness and his drug abuse, all of which the radio host handled with characteristic aplomb, not to mention an utter lack of irony as he described the many expensive procedures that aided in his recovery from both. I kept waiting for Shatner to ask if Limbaugh's insurance had covered rehab, but he didn't.
It is an odd encounter but the only thing raw about it was the strange etiquette, part deference, part defiance, that the famous so often assume when dealing with each other. If Shatner is going to bring on guests with Limbaugh's level of social divisiveness, he's going to have to shore up his William-Shatnerness and dispense with the small talk.
More fitting the format is second guest Regis Philbin -- watching these two war horses swap Dino compliments and try to finish a tale without the other interrupting provides an excellent primer for anyone hoping to fill Oprah's shoes. Or, for that matter, Philbin's.