As a genre, the celebrity interview hasn't changed much over the years. The standard talk show appearance is home to the carefully sculpted anecdote. In-depth magazine profiles tend to pivot around a contrived field trip or two, or leave you with the lingering sense that most of the spontaneous ponderings have been shaped ahead of time by the unseen hands of a publicist and manager. The press junket doesn't even pretend to be anything more than the sales tool that it is.
"The Mortified Sessions," which begins its second season 9 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel, does the seemingly impossible by creating a genuinely entertaining variation on the celebrity Q&A. Each week host Dave Nadelberg sits down with a guest to poke through a shoebox filled with childhood ephemera: old diaries, photos, school assignments. The more embarrassing, the better. The new season returns with Oak Park native and "Cougar Town" co-star Busy Philipps.
"I'm one of those people who was always writing horrible poetry and keeping really intense journals and pictures," she said last week from Los Angeles, "so I thought there would be tons of stuff to mine. It's not for everybody. I know many actors who would not feel comfortable divulging this kind of thing because you don't really know where the conversation is going to go. Dave knows some basic background information, but for him it's all fresh when you're going through those artifacts, so the conversation does feel genuinely organic and natural. He's just asking questions based on what you're giving him."
Philipps and her family moved to Arizona when she was 6, but she spent most of her summers here and is coming to town this weekend to celebrate the 95th birthday of her grandparents.
"My family is fourth-generation Chicagoans, maybe more. My parents met at Oak Park and River Forest High School and a lot of my extended family still lives in and around Chicago, so I'm taking my 4-year-old daughter to visit them during our hiatus on 'Cougar Town.' So yeah, I'll be in Oak Park. Look for me at the Whole Foods by the snacks."
So far, "The Mortified Sessions" has been smart to approach the right kind of celebrities (including former Chicagoans Nick Offerman and Danny Pudi last year) who are just recognizable enough, but not yet overexposed or calcified by their fame. The interviews feel small but meaningful. "All things 'Mortified' come from LA," Nadelberg told me, "which I often define as the official town of public humiliation, so it's kind of fitting, I guess."
The 'Mortified' concept originally began as a stage show inspired by one of Nadelberg's own teenage keepsakes. "I started 'Mortified' 10 years ago when I went onstage and read a love letter that I had written in my high school years and found in my 20s and thought it was atrocious and awful and revealed a great deal more into my psyche than I think wanted to admit. I invited a bunch of people to join me and 'Mortified' began." The stage show, which features noncelebrities reading from their childhood journals and the like, pops up every few months in different cities and is independently produced by local chapters. The next live show in Chicago is Oct. 20 at Schubas.
"The stage show led to a series of books, then Web content and animation and now this television show," Nadelberg said. There's also a documentary about 'Mortified' that will come out next year (a crew was in Chicago a few months ago gathering footage).
While the stage show is monologue-based, the television show is an interview that mimics the casting process for the stage show. "It is this really weird, almost therapylike session," Nadelberg said, "where somebody takes something out of the shoebox that they've brought to us, and that becomes the basis for a conversation about who they were and who they are. Everyone has always said that's the most fascinating part of the show and no one gets to see it (because it's done behind the scenes).
"It's not so much about celebrity voyeurism, because that doesn't interest me. I like the idea of looking in the seemingly trivial items of your past and discovering how you achieved whatever it is that you've achieved in life. And I've found in the past 10 years of doing this, with celebrities or not: When people are holding that piece of paper in their hand, whether it's a diary entry or a love letter or a hideous prom photo, they're more willing to talk about their lives than if I was asking them a direct question about themselves."
It also cuts through the distancing sheen of money and fame.
"I'm really into things that humanize us, and it's true the show has elements of things like Us Weekly's 'Stars Are Just Like Us.' But hopefully we go beneath the surface and really get know people. I think that's maybe one of the thing that the guests on our show respond to. You go on other talk shows and you have to do the routine, the PR-approved patter. And this is not the show for that."
The second season of "The Mortified Sessions" returns 9 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel. For info about the Oct. 20 live stage show go to getmortified.com and click on "Mortified Live." The upcoming season of "Cougar Town" returns Jan. 8 on a new network, TBS.
TV in Chicago: The bad news
Call it the unfortunate timing blunder of the week: The same day Gov. Pat Quinn sent out a news release touting the state's success in luring television projects to Illinois, reports began to surface that one of those new shows is already headed for cancellation. Ratings for Fox's "The Mob Doctor" (8 p.m. Mondays) have been low enough to prompt both Vulture and Entertainment Weekly to anticipate a quick end to the show's run. If the past is any indication, those predictions might prove to be right. Last year, the short-lived NBC drama "The Playboy Club" (also filmed in Chicago) was the first show of the fall season to be canceled after drawing just 3.4 million viewers in its third and final outing. Episode 3 of "The Mob Doctor" (which aired earlier this week) attracted similar numbers at 3.5 million (losing about half of the audience that tuned in for the show's lead-in, "Bones.") A decision might not be imminent, however, as postseason baseball coverage will pre-empt much of Fox's October lineup.
TV in Chicago: The good news
Whatever the fate of the current series filming in town, another local project is in the works. USA Network is shooting the pilot for a new half-hour comedy series written and produced by Denis Leary ("Rescue Me") called "Sirens," which begins production in Chicago later this month. The show (about a group of young paramedics) is being adapted from the British series of the same name. If USA greenlights a series, Betsy Steinberg of the Illinois Film Office says the plan is to film it entirely in Chicago.
Columbia College's Cinema Slapdown is taking advantage of debate season by staging its own raucous event with a screening of Alexander Payne's "Election," followed by a heated debate to determine whether or not Reese Witherspoon's crazed 1999 portrayal of a ambitious high schooler is a metaphor for our current political campaigns. 7 p.m. Tuesday at Film Row Cinema. Go to events.colum.edu.
Cinema Minima's lineup Sunday gets a jump on Halloween with 10 short films dedicated to all things grotesque or morbid. The lineup includes "Sink Hole," the tale of a man seduced by a kitchen appliance; "Carny," which delves into a the murky world of a circus performer; and the faux trailer "Zombin Laden: The Axis of Evil Dead," in which Osama bin Laden returns from the dead. At Coles Bar 8-10 p.m. Sunday. Go to cinema-minima.com.
A total of 24 films will screen as part of the Greek Film Festival this weekend, including "The Foreigner," a comedy that captures a sense of Greece's present economic crisis with a story about a small village that must increase its population by just one person, or risk losing access to public services. Their unlikely savior arrives in the form of a visiting Englishman. 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge; other screenings at various locations. Go to greekfilmfestchicago.org.
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