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TV Review: Oprah’s OWN Network, Where Fluffy Meets Smart

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens January 2, 2011 at 3:32AM

Oprah Winfrey has the amazing ability to say things – or rather make pronouncements - that might sound alarming from other people. As she told Barbara Walters about starting OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, “People deserve to have value-centered, inspirational programming.” What? Imagine that value-centric statement coming from some tea-partying Sarah Palin clone and it takes on a far less innocuous tone.
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Oprah Winfrey has the amazing ability to say things – or rather make pronouncements - that might sound alarming from other people. As she told Barbara Walters about starting OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, “People deserve to have value-centered, inspirational programming.” What? Imagine that value-centric statement coming from some tea-partying Sarah Palin clone and it takes on a far less innocuous tone.

With OWN, Oprah has set herself up to be America’s life coach, so it’s worth asking: exactly what values is she training us in? They are ultimately as benign as her motto, “live your best life,” but much more complicated. OWN (the channel launched on New Year’s Day) displays a whiff of spirituality, a huge amount of life-style fluff, and a surprising layer of substance.

If you’re not a die-hard Oprah fan, if you wouldn’t jump, squeal and wail like a banshee if someone gave you a Kindle or even a car, you can skip most of the programs. They are derivative, with an Oprah spin. There are cooking shows like Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love; was there ever a more Oprah-esque title? There’s Enough Already! With Peter Walsh, in which the host gets families to unclutter their houses and lives, a less pathological version of A&E’s Hoarders.

Oprah grasps the power of stardom, and has loaded OWN’s many reality shows with celebrities. Right now there’s Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which follows the making of the current, final season of her regular talk show. Coming in the next months, shows in which we watch famous people who have crashed emotionally, like Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain, try to like themselves again. Honestly, even Oprah can’t convince me I want to see Ryan and Tatum O’Neal try to repair their train-wreck of a father-daughter relationship; I wonder how she convinced herself.

But along with this fluffernutter of a schedule comes a real commitment to serious non-fiction shows and documentary films. OWN’s best current series is Oprah Presents Master Class, in which accomplished people talk about who they are and how they got there. The lineup is eclectic enough to include Sidney Poitier and Simon Cowell, and on this weekend’s first episodes, Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer.

Visually, Master Class resembles Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts; it comes from the same high-powered team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Sitting against a plain black backdrop, the subject faces the camera, with many quick-cuts to profile and video inserts from their careers; the show is smoothly edited to within an inch of its life. There is no on-camera interviewer, and I’d love to have heard the questions prodding the subjects to talk about recurring topics like overcoming failure. Yet it all works.

The Sawyer segment was better than Jay-Z’s because it was less filled with platitudes. Easy for Jay-Z to say he didn’t get a record contract, so started his own label; he doesn’t say how, and that’s the hard part. Sawyer talked more specifically about journalism, and the episode seemed fresh. I’d never seen those clips of her 1990’s tough-question interview with Saddam Hussein.

Even more encouraging, in the spring OWN will begin what it calls a monthly documentary film club. The network is co-producing docs with people whose names help, like Julia Roberts (hers is on mothers who are activists), Gabriel Byrne (homelessness in Nashville) and Forest Whitaker (a hospice in a maximum security prison). And OWN’s acquired documentaries include one of the strongest I saw at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Sons of Perdition, about three teenage boys who escaped a splinter-Mormon polygamist compound. Eventually, the doc club could help non-fiction film the way Oprah’s book club gave publishing a boost.

The current series Miracle Detectives may offer the purest reflection of the network’s approach. Together, a man who believes in miracles and a woman who believes in science investigate supposedly miraculous events. The strained but intriguing show accepts the role of faith yet lets us know that the healing properties of soil in the village of Chimayo, New Mexico might well result from a placebo effect bolstering the immune system. That’s the Oprah attitude: veering toward the spiritual but determinedly open-minded.

Beneath the inspirational advice that often sounds like hot air, and the clean-up-your-room mom’s voice, Oprah has a bedrock belief in reason, intelligence and education. That’s what makes her so valuable and OWN so promising to the non-banshees among us.

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