As the first prime-time show based on a real-life pop culture hero (sorry, Toma doesn’t really count), Elvis is proving to be something of a stylistic revelation: a beautifully shot, gravely paced portrait of a secular saint, vouchsafed to his disciples in weekly, half-hour chapters.
Set in the mid ’50s, each show emphasizes one incident in Elvis’ earthly existence: Elvis enters the kingdom of Sun Records; Elvis hears his own heavenly voice on the radio for the first time; Elvis goes to church in a purple shirt open to the sternum and no one blinks.
That there isn’t much content in each half-hour, and that the disciples tuning in for this video gospel are fewer than ABC had prayed for, only make Elvis more interesting.
In striving for a dignified, unsensationalistic approach to the Elvis myth, executive producer Priscilla Presley and company have achieved a quiet, often eerie minimalism that anticipates much of what filmmaker David Lynch is about to bring to TV with Twin Peaks. An unsettling silence surrounds much of Elvis, which gets het up only when the once and future King swivels his hips, purses his lips, and gets real, real gone.
To his credit, Elvis actor Michael St. Gerard — is that perfect or what? Saint Gerard! — knows how to get gone; he’s not doing what most actors do when they ”do” Elvis, which is an impersonation of Andy Kaufman doing Elvis. Millie Perkins is suitably exhausted and skeptical as Elvis’ mother, Gladys, and slit-eyed, plain-speaking Billy Green Bush was born to play Elvis’ father, Vernon.
The mediocre ratings can be ascribed to a number of things: old Elvis fans who are tuned in to Murder, She Wrote at that hour; viewers’ exhaustion from laughing too hard at America’s Funniest Home Videos; evil Elvis biographer Albert Goldman as voodoo hex-master of the universe.
As for the complaints that this show doesn’t capture Presley’s smoldering sex appeal — well, that’s naive: Between Priscilla and prime-time prudishness, did anyone really think we were going to get a thorough examination of early Elvis groupies?
Elvis, should ABC continue to support it, will cover only 1954-58 — that is, pre-Army Elvis, pre-Vegas Elvis, pre-weight-gain Elvis. The idea, of course, is that presenting an Elvis virtually untouched by the outside world renders him innocent again, safe for mass consumption. But to make Elvis safe is to deny him his power. It’s a measure of that power that, even stripped of his complexity in a TV show, he remains compulsively watchable. B+