Thursday, October 16, 2008

'Iconoclasts' returns, bright-eyed if a bit pat, by Ted Cox - Daily Herald - 16th October 2008

Two people can bring out the worst in each other, as anyone who's seen the presidential debates can attest. But a unified couple can also have the opposite effect - on themselves and those around them.

"Iconoclasts," the wonderfully whimsical celebrity-on-celebrity interview program, returns at 9 p.m. today on the Sundance Channel, and its fourth season premiere is testimony to that beneficial impact we sometimes have on one another.

In a series based upon unlikely pairings, the season debut offers one of the unlikeliest: South Africa's Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and British entrepreneur, adventurer and billionaire Sir Richard Branson. What could they possibly have in common? Well, a remarkable fondness for each other, to start, but also a bright-eyed optimism about the state and fate of the world, no matter how dire the current situation.

I have to say, in some ways the Branson-Tutu pairing is "Iconoclasts" at its best, but it also reveals some pitfalls to the show's premise. When the subjects are so big, as these two world figures are, they aren't likely to be pushed to any new insights by the producer-director and crew. Although Tutu and Branson express a clear and mutual affection for each other and a remarkable buoyancy, they don't really get to interact all that much, unless you count Branson trying to give Tutu a short-lived swimming lesson in the ocean-view pool he has on his private island.

There is none of the fascinating conversational back-and-forth that can make "Iconoclasts" so captivating, as was the case between Quentin Tarantino and Fiona Apple in the second season. Instead, there is a lot of historical background on both as individuals, mixed with a few heartwarming scenes of them together.

Yet they are genuinely heartwarming. These are two huge souls, and it's a kick to see them together, even when tossed in with a self-important, idealistic mission organizing a group called the Elders.

That too is a problem, however. Branson and Tutu hope to make the Elders a force for world peace, using well-respected leaders like former Irish President Mary Robinson and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mediate conflicts in global hot spots. Yet what does it have to do with Branson and Tutu when fellow Elders organizer Peter Gabriel sits down at the piano to do a singalong on his anthem "Biko" with Roslyn and Jimmy Carter?

The setting is kind of off-putting, too, for anyone not to the manor born. Yes, it's easy to dream of world peace when you're sitting on your own private island, taking discussion breaks with catamaran races and ending the day with your own personal fireworks display.

Yet Tutu, for one, cuts right through the opulence. It's not as if he hasn't seen the other side of life in South Africa under apartheid.

"People are dying in wars," he acknowledges, "but there's goodness and laughter." In effect, he engages a one-man attack on cynicism, and that battle is joined by Branson. "I was just thinking how easy it is to pooh-pooh attempts to change the world," Tutu says. "Because what can a few individuals do in the face of all the ghastliness?" That makes the fight to turn the world into "a slightly more compassionate place" all the more noble.

"You can't be human all by yourself," Tutu says. "We are all connected. - When you are successful, it spreads out."

Branson couldn't have a more eloquent friend and ally, and he projects his own jolly mission to make the world a better place - whether through world peace or simply a better airline.

In the end, "Iconoclasts" wipes away most if not all of the preconceptions and suspicions a viewer might bring to it, to revel in unlikely yet enduring connections between human beings. "There is an extraordinary alchemy that happens between two people," Tutu says, and that expresses the wonder of "Iconoclasts" in its essence.

• Ted Cox writes Tuesday and Thursday in L&E and Friday in Sports and Time out!

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