MTV, Soren get right to point TV preview: Far from a fluff job, 'Interview' asks the tough questions and expects answers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If nothing else, give Tabitha Soren credit for not beating around the bush in her new prime-time show, "The MTV Interview," which premieres at 10 tonight.

"So, Sean, you have sort of a gash on your face," she says to actor-director Sean Penn at the start of their conversation. "What happened?"

It will probably shock no one that Penn says he got in yet another fight -- the night before their interview -- and a bunch of guys beat him up. Poor Sean.

But not poor Tabitha and not poor MTV.

While I'll probably have to surrender my union card as a member of the middle-aged, male, Mike Wallace-worshiping television critics' club of America for saying it, Soren's work is as good as or better than almost any prime-time magazine interview you'll see on ABC, NBC, CBS or CNN.

Furthermore, in her other interviews -- with "gangsta" rap artist Tupac Shakur and P.L.O. leader Yasir Arafat -- she stakes out a parcel of celebrity-land that most of her more mainstream colleagues couldn't handle.

Soren sets up her interviews by saying, "In this hour, we talk with three people some might consider to be, among other things, terminally, politically incorrect -- bad boys, if you will, who have something to say. Whether you like what they say, is up to you."

If the take-it-or-leave-it tone of that opening sounds familiar, it might be due to the fact Linda Ellerbee is one of the writers on tonight's show. Her Lucky Duck Productions company co-produces "The MTV Interview" with MTV News.

The first interview is with Shakur, who is out on appeal after serving eight months in prison for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. It starts out seeming like it might be a dreadful bit of celebrity schmooze. Shakur and Soren are walking along the promenade at Venice Beach (Calif.), with rap music playing and Shakur signing autographs.

"All right, give me a characterization of your childhood," Soren begins, lobbing a softball that allows Shakur, 24, to say what a shy child he was.

But before you can fully frame the thought that Soren is as vapid as Maria Shriver, she interrupts the rapper by asking, "At what point in your early life were you introduced to this 'thug' mentality?"

"When I was out there by myself with nowhere to stay, no money," he begins, trying to start back into his spiel of non-specific blather.

But Soren stops him in his tracks by asking, simply: "What city?"

"Bits of it were in Baltimore, pieces of it Marin City, and then the rest was Oakland," he says, clearly not as in control of the interview as he had been.

Maybe it's Ellerbee's doing, but the most impressive thing about Soren is how many in-your-face follow-up questions she asks.

Near the end of the session, she challenges Shakur about how accommodating he's been for the interview. He says he's trying to be "humble."

When she asks why, Shakur says, "because humble is sexy."

"Sexy!" she says incredulously. "You mean you're doing this to get chicks?"

Soren's best moment with Arafat comes when he starts to tell her she's probably too young to be aware of one of his most famous speeches -- the moment when the "olive branch" was first extended on Mideast peace, in his telling. Like an eager student who's done her homework, Soren almost rises out of her chair to say, "You mean, at the United Nations in 1974."

As for the lifestyle questions, the 74-year-old Arafat tells Soren that he likes Beethoven, westerns and "cartoon films."

And, lest he seem too much like lovable old Grandpa Yasir to her MTV audience, Soren comes back after the interview to list some of the civil and human rights abuses for which Arafat is allegedly responsible. The very best thing about "The MTV Interview," though, is it's qualified conclusion.

"It is said that one man, in his time, may play many parts," Soren tells viewers. "And it's true that at various times each of these three men has been or has appeared to be a different person than he is now. It's also true that none of these stories is likely to be anywhere near finished yet."

Most network interviews don't admit to being only snapshots -- usually involving a subject who is carefully posed to create an image that will sell more tickets, records or books.

I remember Diane Sawyer's heavily promoted interview on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" last year with Julia Roberts. It built to that great moment when Sawyer bore in on Roberts with the really tough question, "If you were designing heaven, what would you put in it?"

I'll take Soren and "The MTV Interview," thank you.

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