By Caryn James | James on Screens February 15, 2011 at 2:01AM
Our America with Lisa Ling (premiering tonight at 10 ET) has a lot that’s promising, and even more that reveals why Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network is struggling with its ratings, why it will be a challenge to move beyond devoted Oprah-istas.
Ling travels the country finding people who might appear marginal but are also part of America’s texture: tonight's subject is faith healers, next week people living transgendered lives. She personalizes their stories by interacting with them as a friendly, intelligent, sometimes skeptical interviewer.
This first episode offers a fascinating look at a world most of us never come close to, as Ling and her camera crew visit Todd Bentley and attend a healing service at his Morningstar church in South Carolina. She describes Bentley as a rock star among faith healers, and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery almost derailed his ministry.
Among the hopeful, she focuses on Steve (above), who has been in a wheelchair for years. Doctors say he will not ever walk again; he is convinced that he will be cured during the last ten minutes of Bentley’s group session. She talks to students at Morningstar’s school for would-be faith healers - I had no idea you could just sign up - many of them with addictions and violence in their pasts. And she visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend the sessions, hoping that when they bring their mother she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. Faith healing is, Ling points out, a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.
Ling asks many of the right questions, even as she indulges the Oprah-esque strategy of putting herself in the center of the story. She cannot bear to watch what will happen if Steve doesn’t walk, and stays outside as the cameras go inside the healing service. We watch Bentley briefly lay hands on those hoping for a cure then move on to the next person - there appear to be hundreds - as if he were going down some miracle-working assembly line.
I don’t want to spoil the drama, but if Bentley were making the paralyzed walk and curing cancer, wouldn’t you have heard about it? Yet Ling concludes that maybe faith overrides everything, pointing especially to the student-healers who have turned their lives around. She glosses over the harsh fact that we all understand faith healing to mean physical cures. And by twisting that to include the spiritual awakening that can help a person leave an abusive relationship or give up drugs, she avoids the deepest implications of what she has just witnessed. After all the wrenching, disappointed hopes she has exposed, she waffles.
That strenuous effort to have it both ways - not to offend believers or skeptics - feels like an OWN signature, and it threatens to make Our America soft-headed as well as soft-hearted. Lisa Ling and Oprah Winfrey are both too smart for that. Or maybe they’re smart enough to know how to cater to OWN’s audience?