I Like to Watch

The good, the bad and the Oprah! Charity reigns supreme on ABC's "Oprah's Big Give" while tabloid nastiness rules FX's "Dirt."

By Heather Havrilesky
Published February 24, 2008 2:00PM (EST)

I prefer good people with bad attitudes to bad people with good attitudes. Personally, I enjoy lazy, unkempt people whose crabby phone voices mask their pure intentions, and avoid chipper go-getters whose pleasant, friendly exteriors hide a compulsion to win at all costs. When I encounter a broad, professional smile filled with perfectly white teeth and a firm handshake from a neatly manicured hand, I imagine that hand ruthlessly choking the life out of some unlucky little animal while those pretty teeth grit together in concentration.

Professional, upbeat, focused, detail-oriented people are just creepy, let's face it. Maybe that's why most of us instinctively distrust politicians. "He really seems to have his shit together," is the natural precursor to the question, "What's wrong with him, anyway?" It's not that we're driven to find some hidden flaw; it's that most of us can't personally comprehend what would motivate a person to get their dry-cleaning done in a timely fashion. There's just something a little nefarious about maintaining a consistently polished image.

When someone looks like a slob, personally I'm instantly charmed. When the expression on a woman's face bespeaks a life full of unmade beds, hastily prepared meals and outdated, disheveled outfits, that's when I say to myself, "Now here's a woman who's got her priorities straight, at long last!" It doesn't matter what she's been doing with her time, really, so long as she hasn't been bleaching her teeth.

The big O
The exception to this rule is, of course, Oprah. Oprah can glide like Cleopatra through the world, a phalanx of dutiful assistants teasing her hair and refreshing her lip gloss and straightening the shoulders of her Armani suit and I refuse to think any less of her. Oprah is a well-groomed, engaged, enthusiastic professional with a media empire at her manicured fingertips; she's had her image and her show and her brand restyled over and over and over again by a multimillion-dollar team of overpaid experts, each of them, in turn, as slick, cheerful, motivated and creepy as the last -- but I love that woman like the beautiful black mommy I never had.

Oprah! Even when she's irritated, she's lovable and intriguing. Oprah! Even when she's bossy and impatient and self-absorbed, she still wows you with her generosity of spirit and her openness and her warmth. I love fat Oprah. I love skinny Oprah. I love in-between Oprah. I love "I'm never dieting again!" Oprah. I love marathon-running Oprah. I love "screw marriage!" Oprah. I love "my little yapping doggies are my babies" Oprah. I love the whole Oprah franchise, with every one of the billions and billions of Oprahs served. I love the whole Oprah universe, with every one of the trillions and trillions of Oprahs that exist under the sun, to infinity and beyond!

Oprah! Oprah! Oprah! Tell us what to read! Tell us what to wear! Tell us who to vote for! Tell us how to redesign our emotional landscapes! Tell us how to be stronger, more confident, more put-together, more professional! Show us how to become glossy and intimidating -- traits we loathe in others, but secretly covet!

If I were ever motivated and ambitious enough to write a book, and my book made it into Oprah's Book Club? Not only would I let Oprah put her "Oprah's Book Club" logo on the cover of my book, I'd allow Oprah's logo to dominate the cover. "Hell, let's just scrap our original cover and go with an enormous photo of Oprah's face," I'd tell the publisher, and then I'd mention that if, instead of calling to tell me that she picked my book, Oprah would prefer to move into my home and sleep with my husband and polish off the rest of the Valentine's Day candy and grind her boots into my couch like Rick James, I wouldn't mind that, either.

Now you think I'm joking. No. Oprah is the one smiling, flawless powerhouse in this world that I trust, and I trust Oprah in everything that she does. I don't care if someone writes a book about how Oprah is secretly evil. Oprah could behave like an insufferable diva or a grandiose fool, and I wouldn't care. She could hire someone whose only task was to dust the stray specks of dirt and lint off her butter-yellow couches all day long, and I would think that was a good choice, because Oprah doesn't make any bad choices.

OK, there was Dr. Phil. One bad choice. Oh, and once I read an Oprah's Book Club selection that sucked. Two bad choices.

But if Oprah wants to have her own reality show, I have to assume that it'll be worthwhile, since everything Oprah does is worthwhile. The thousands of people who showed up to be cast on "Oprah's Big Give" (premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 2, on ABC) obviously felt the same way. Hell, most people would eat a plate of live maggots just for a chance to see Oprah face to face and tell her, as most mortals do when they meet Oprah, that they love her with the blinding heat of a thousand suns.

Yes, this is a reality show, but instead of casting deluded, drunken youngsters who want their 15 minutes of fame, Oprah cast likable, sensitive, caring individuals who honestly hope to change the world. They're also, not surprisingly, the kinds of people who weep openly or scream at the top of their lungs when they find out that it's Oprah on the phone, telling them that they've been chosen. (And by the way, I love the look on Oprah's face when yet another mortal confesses his or her undying love. Yes, yes, you love me, of course, can we get on with this? That's Oprah: Omnipotent, yet so human.)

Naturally Oprah leaves the shiny yuppies for The Donald's three-ring circus, choosing instead earnest, kind human beings -- you know, the sorts of people you don't typically see on TV (unless you're watching "Oprah"). Thus do we meet Kim, who explains, "I've lived most of my life for me ... What I haven't achieved is what it feels like to really give instead of take." You want to know what it feels to be Oprah, in other words. We understand.

After the dot-com millionaire and the train attendant and the singer and all the rest tell us how they're striving to be more Oprah-like, we learn that each week, contestants will be given a charity-related task, and their success will be evaluated by three judges: "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver; Chris Rock's wife, Malaak Compton-Rock; and pro-football player Tony Gonzalez. We also learn that the winner will receive $1 million (the contestants don't know this). Finally, we learn that the show will be hosted by Oprah's sexy-but-non-threatening, multipurpose pool boy, Nate Berkus. The ladies in the group scream like the roof is coming off, and their eyes pop out of their heads when Berkus strides in the door. My God, he's actually here? Why, his initials are on a whole set of towels at Linens 'N Things!

Back to business. In the first episode, contestants are placed in teams of two and given a photograph and $2,500. Each team is asked to track down the person in the photo, find out what that person needs, and try to change that person's life in a few short days. Basically, it's sort of like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" if you took out the team of producers and the huge corporate sponsors, and replaced them with two individuals. This actually makes it a lot more fun and interesting. Instead of free refrigerators and sofas falling out of the sky, "Queer Eye"-style, you have two people trying to figure out how to make a difference in someone's life.

Now, granted, you have to wonder how often contestants repeat the magic word (Oprah) when they're looking for charitable contributions. (My guess is five to six times per sentence.) Even so, although a few of the contestants are obviously stumped by how to handle the first challenge, some of them pull off some pretty spectacular events. Eric, a disaster relief worker, and Stephen, a contractor, manage to raise a big sum to help partially pay off the mortgage of a woman whose husband was shot and killed at his job at Home Depot. Another team finds a homeless woman with two kids a place to live, rent paid, for six months, plus a good savings fund and a financial planner to help her manage it.

Of course it's easy enough to snicker and roll your eyes at the big Oprah reality show, particularly if you don't love Oprah like I do. But trust me, if you let down your guard and just watch this show without judgment, it will make you cry. Sure, it's sappy and sentimental and it's just another polished product to complement Oprah's multi-platform brand. But look past your prejudices, because "Oprah's Big Give" is really more than that. This show, more than any other I've seen, demonstrates very clearly just how often people fall through the cracks in this country and have serious trouble picking themselves up and starting over. The more we meet these ordinary people who need help, the more inspired we all might be to lend a hand and do something, big or small, to make a difference to someone out there.

A heartfelt, inspiring, uplifting TV show that brings out the best in people? Who could possibly resist that?

Muddy waters
Lucy Spiller of FX's "Dirt" (premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday, March 2) certainly could. Even though the tabloid editor (played by Courteney Cox) is in a hospital bed, recovering from a stab wound after being attacked by a scorned starlet whose life she essentially ruined, Lucy's first words as she regains consciousness are "Cover ... the cover" as in, what do we have for the cover this week?

If that doesn't sound all that believable, well, it's not. "Hello everyone! Vacation's over!" Lucy bellows as she strides through the offices of Dirt Now magazine, and upon arriving at the office, she adds, "Have my office painted, I've seen enough red!" Get it? She was stabbed. Although that's the sort of lame joke that floats around "Dirt" like lint in a laundry room, it's hard not to wonder if it wouldn't have a little more believability and bite coming out of another actor's mouth. Courteney Cox is merely adequate as Lucy Spiller. Sure, she's convincingly bossy and self-involved, but Cox's interpretation of Lucy is pretty flat otherwise. There's nothing going on in her voice. There are no mysterious shades of longing or curiosity or deceit in her eyes. When you think of the most electrifying evil-boss-lady performances in recent history -- Susan Sarandon in HBO's "Bernard and Doris," Glenn Close in FX's "Damages," Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" -- the potential for fun and intrigue with this character is clear. Just a tiny sliver of Sarandon's drunken hysteria, a glimmer of Close's nasty impulses, a hint of Streep's casual coldness, would transform Lucy into a character worth watching.

Instead, we get what amounts to a cardboard cutout, one with no remorse, no clear motive for her actions (success, I suppose, but what does that bring her?), no obvious vulnerabilities (there are hints that she's lonely or wants a family, mostly coming from other characters' accusations, but we don't see this fragility or desire in Cox at all), and no reason to care.

This isn't entirely Cox's fault, of course. Could even Streep convincingly wake up from a coma with the words "Cover? The cover?" on her lips? "Dirt" suffers from a serious lack of imagination. The writers steal stories from the tabloids, combining scandals but making it crystal clear whom they're parodying. In the second episode of the second season, "Celebutante" Milan is caught driving the wrong way on an offramp. Meanwhile, sitcom star Jimmy Darby, who's having custody issues with his ex-wife, leaves a voice-mail for his daughter calling her "a stupid little narcissist," and then telling her, "You're selfish and you're hollow and I don't give a shit about you and your slutty cheerleader friends." Later we see a video clip of Darby (played by Tom Arnold) drunk, with his daughter heard off-screen asking, "Dad, why are you eating spaghetti on the floor?"

If you're going to start with real stories, they should at least branch off into interesting territory from there. Lucy makes a bet with Farber, her new reporter, that Milan will be out of jail by the end of the day, but we already know this will happen, because that's how it was with Paris.

Then Lucy goes to Milan's house to interview her (Milan's on house arrest), and ends up insulting her when she realizes Milan wants her to run a pre-printed interview written by her publicists.

Lucy: You know, when I was in high school, I used to drive by the big gates of your parents' house. It was so huge. I used to think, "Whoever lives inside, they must have anything they want. They can be anything they want." What did you choose to be, a celebutante?

Milan: I worked my ass off to become a star.

Lucy: You're not a singer. You're not an actress. You've never worked a day in your life. You're a little spoiled brat who goes clubbing, that's all you've ever achieved. Oh, that and going up an offramp after having one too many chocolatinis.

Milan: You think I'm just some party girl? I am a brand. I created a brand. You think I'm nothing? OK. Think about how hard it is to turn nothing into a major brand: A clothing line, fragrances, makeup. You can call me a slut or a whore or anything else, but never say I don't work hard for what I have.

Lucy: Now there's a quote.

If these stories are ripped straight from the headlines, then the dialogue is ripped straight from the comments section of TMZ. "You're a spoiled little brat who goes clubbing"? How can we respect a character who'd deign to make such an obvious observation? Lucy is about as intimidating as a temperamental 13-year-old.

It's all so lightweight and predictable, but the writers are determined to make it seem heavier than it is. Here's Don Konkey (Ian Hart), Lucy's schizophrenic paparazzo friend, to explain that Milan is just "the part of ourselves we loathe ... That's why we need her, to make us feel better. That's her job." Deep, man.

Mostly, though, we're meant to revel in how corrupt and soulless Lucy is. "Doesn't it make you nervous, to mess around with people's lives like this, given everything that's happened?" Charly, a Lindsay Lohan clone, asks Lucy. "No," Lucy answers flatly, without explaining. If Lucy could get stabbed and have no change of heart and no new insights into herself or her world, then clearly she's never going to be anything more than a placeholder for the soulless mastermind, pacing around her house in a black satin robe with a glass of pinot noir in her hand.

At the end of the season premiere, Lucy and Don walk through a graveyard together, and everything about the scene reminds me of mediocre student filmmaking: leaden dialogue delivered by colorless voices, "artsy" but unappealing camera angles, crappy art direction. With the glow of fake moonlight and the moody alt-rock building softly, a clumsy attempt at dramatic weight is looming in the air like the stank of Polo cologne at a high school prom.

Don: What happened to you, Lucy?

Lucy: I was in a coma, and for a minute, I crossed over. It was so nice.

Don: Why did you come back?

Lucy: I don't know. We'll see.

Yes, I suppose we will see, eventually. But why would we want to?

Sunday night: Join our discussion of "The Wire" after the third-to-last episode of the series. Next week: "Wife Swap" and "Supernanny" explore the perilous and volatile back roads of the American dream!

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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