The Oprah Winfrey Network's odd, splashy kick-off

I spent my New Year's Day watching the TV titan's ambitious new cable venture. To my surprise, it won me over

By Matt Zoller Seitz
Published January 2, 2011 2:30AM (EST)
Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

What time is it? What day is it? What year is it? Who glued my eyelids shut and stuffed my brain with wet socks? Why am I not still in bed?

Answers: It's 11:35 a.m. on January 1, 2011. I'm foggy and cranky because I celebrated a bit too much on New Years' Eve. And now I'm sitting here at my computer instead of being curled up in bed like a newly-hatched shrimp because I've been assigned to write about the New Year's Day debut of OWN , a.k.a. the Oprah Winfrey Network, a.k.a. the pet project of Oprah Winfrey, a.k.a. the reigning monarch of self-help and outgoing poobah of daytime TV, a.k.a. the person preventing me from sleeping off this cursed hangover.

Damn you, Oprah. I despise you and your commercialized inspirational pap. You must be destroyed. Torn apart by ferrets. Tossed into the maw of an active volcano. Disintegrated by Marvin Martian's IridiumIlludium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Get thee behind me, Oprah. I will not succumb to your cult-of-personality Amway malarkey. Stop smiling at me and talking in those soothing tones! Your voodoo doesn't work on me! I hate you!

But I'm here and I'm going to watch this bland spectacle hour-by-hour starting at 11:30 a.m., taking notes on those rare occasions when I can get my fingers to function and checking out when I can no longer stand it. Wish me luck!

OWN powers up to its noon launch with a gaggle of informercial-y segments introducing shows that debut this month and previewing future fare. "It should be lots of fun and a great way to ring in the New Year!" chirps Oprah pal Nancy O"Dell, TV host, scrapbooker and ancillary member of Oprah's self-help version of the Rat Pack.

It's not. All the interviews with OWN hosts are shot the same way: in mug-shot profiles and head-on shots of people sitting on couches, reading "enthusiastic" copy as "enthusiastically" as they possibly can. The result evokes videos made by bomber pilots shot down over enemy territory and forced to read scripted statements about how well they're being treated. Oprah herself provides little introductions to each introduction -- the impresario endorsing her products and property. The entire run-up is oddly reminiscent of the wraparound segments from "The Wonderful World of Disney," with Oprah as Uncle Walt enticing viewers to visit her own version of Disney World, a psychological/spiritual/consumerist theme park of the mind where personal catharsis is packaged and sold for the betterment of humankind.

My head is killing me. Why am I barefoot? Where did I leave my shoes?

Sorry, where were we? Oh, right -- Oprah's cronies. Scratch that Rat Pack comparison; what's onscreen is more Justice League of America. Oprah is feeling her oats as she prepares to depart daytime's airwaves, so she's kicked her deft mix of talent-scouting and cronyism up a notch and is now presenting her regulars as pop culture icons in their own right -- and the network as a quasi-mythic gathering place.

One of the OWN programs is something called "Ask Oprah's All-Stars" (Sundays at 8/7c), wherein audiences ask Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and Dr. Mehmet (The Great and Powerful) Oz for advice on "health, wealth and mental well-being." Has Dr. Phil -- whose daily OWN series debuts Monday at 11/10 AM central -- always seemed this belligerent? And what happened to his face? He's perfectly smooth, almost ceramic. And orange. Like a Muppet. They all look like Muppets. Too much airbrushed bronzer, Oprah. Tell the makeup people to chill. It's okay if we see peoples' pores, honest.

An ad for "Your OWN Show" -- subtitled "Oprahs' Search for the Next TV Star" -- finds the mighty O paying her success forward. It's "American Idol" for talk-show hosts, hosted by Nancy O'Dell and "Queer Eye" founding member Carson Kressly and executive produced by Mark Burnett ("Survivor"). The panel of judges is drawn from the Justice League of Oprah. Participants will include O herself, Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, and Gayle King, a.k.a. Oprah's best friend and the host of a solo series premiering Jan. 10. At the end of the talent search, Oprah will reward the winner with or his or her very own -- ahem, OWN -- talk program. The infomercial's climax is a shot of somebody's hand -- presumably Oprah's -- tossing a microphone towards a sea of outstretched arms; the action-filmic lighting, super-slow-motion and mystical-triumphant music suggests a bridal bouquet toss by way of "Excalibur."

Producer-musician -- whose very name makes Microsoft Word's autocorrect function bash its head against a virtual wall while bellowing like a trapped animal -- has a brief segment where he tells us about the network theme song Oprah commissioned him to write. "It's...." he says, pausing as he searches for exactly the right word. "....Fresh!" Except not; it's yet another one of those Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks-sounding Auto-Tunes specials. "I wanna own it it/Wanna wanna own it/Wanna own it/That's the way I want it!"

Just in time to stop me from weaving a noose from nylon recycling twine and scrawling a farewell note, the OWN theme song ends and celebrity chef and domestic goddess Cristina Ferrare materializes to shill her series "Big Bowl of Love" (weekdays at 3:30/2:30 PM central). "When I bring a bowl or a platter to the table, I really mean it," she says. "I'm bringing a big bowl of love!" It sounds like a threat. She repeats the show's title 20 times within the space of three minutes. "I am so happy to be involved in this wonderful new venture!" she exclaims.

Variations of that phrase will be repeated throughout the programming day. I'm sure all Oprah's TV troopers mean it, yet the sentiment invariably sounds like OWN's version of the brainwashed "Manchurian Candidate" soldiers insisting that their icy commanding officer Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they've met in all their lives.

Ferrare's food does look tasty, though. Visually appealing, too. I can't cook like that. I've never had the patience to learn how to cook like that. Ferrare keeps insisting it's not that hard -- that cooking is just a matter of following instructions and listening to your instincts and .... Maybe I should sign up for a class or something. Something basic. Start small, Matt. Baby steps.

No! Get thee behind me, Oprah's minion. I don't need this cooking-as-empowerment business. I can make plenty of satisfying dishes, including proper omelets so exquisitely tasty and geometrically perfect that astronomers could use them to calibrate Hubble telescopes. That surely compensates for my inability to make rice without overcooking it, right? I'm way ahead of most people. This sham called OWN won't meet any unmet needs -- not today!

When's the last time I cracked open "The Joy of Cooking"? Where is "The Joy of Cooking"? Somewhere in my apartment -- probably within striking distance of the kitchen. I think.

My headache is not subsiding. My mouth is dry. I need water. And Tylenol. It is now noon.

"I wanted to give somebody else the chance that was given to me 25 years ago," says Oprah, by way of introducing a series starring Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and recent participant in a bribes-for-royal access scandal. And here's Fergie, sitting on a couch just like everybody else on this network, starring glassily into the camera while reciting PR copy about her installment of the documentary series "Master Class." Apparently this will follow Sarah Ferguson's quest to find her pure, authentic, Buddah self -- the self that somehow got lost amid all the royal trappings. "You're gonna come on an adventure with me trying to find the authentic Sarah," she intones, staring glassily into the camera. "I kind of got lost as to where the real Sarah is."

Given Ferguson's recent fall from grace, this project requires a bit of special handling, and the Justice League of Oprah is happy to provide it. Oprah gets out in front of the negative Nellies, introducing footage of herself interviewing Fergie by declaring, "I spoke to her last year after her very public ... scandal!" Oprah gives the word "scandal" a strange, old-movie-style "society" pronunciation -- it sounds like "scan-DUHHHL!" -- and makes air quotes. The fact that the air quotes are pitched at hip-level, almost below the frame line, somehow magnifies her resentment at even having to address the matter. After the mini-sitdown between the Queen of Talk and the Duchess of York, the segment cuts to Fergie embroiled in an insta-therapy session with none other than Dr. Phil, who traces the Duchess' lifelong feelings of inadequacy to "the self bully, the self hatred, just the feelings that you're completely worthless." His face is still orange.

One of the more disquieting aspects of this OWN premiere days is the pervasive sense (inevitable, I suppose) that this cable network is not just a programming venture and a brand extension, but a living monument to its creator's power -- and a celebration of her willingness to use that power as a force for good. We won't just watch OWN; we will gaze upon it with awe and affection, and marvel at the sweet magnificence of its founder. That's fine insofar as it goes -- every ex-president eventually gets a memoir and a library and nobody gets too worked up about it; it's expected. But the mechanics of imprinting one's personality on a cable channel à la Oprah ensures that every program, whatever its particular merits, can't help but come across as a mere extension of Oprah Winfrey herself -- a manifestation of her clout, a gift bestowed on members of her inner circle.

This dynamic comes through in a promo for an as-yet-unscheduled reality show about actor Ryan O'Neal, his daughter Tatum, and their profoundly troubled family. Oprah introduces the promo by recounting how Ryan and Tatum came into her offices to pitch a series starring themselves -- a show about an estranged father and daughter reconciling, and dealing with all manner of personal traumas, including the death of Ryan's wife Farrah Fawcett and the drug problems of Ryan, Tatum and her siblings Griffin and Redmond. I realize that in the E! era, pretty much everyone in the audience is familiar with the ins and outs of TV production and might not be averse to hearing the details of this one. But building an account of the O'Neals' pitch right into the promo feels ... I don't know... weird, and somehow icky. Ryan O'Neal and his daughter Tatum brought their idea into our offices," Oprah tells us. "My team was moved to tears."

Her team? At least when people went to ask favors of Don Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter's wedding, they got an audience with the Don himself.

A promo for "In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman" (Mondays at 10/9c) shows various middle-aged couples discussing their sexual problems with the host, reacting to their partners' complaints and evasions with rolled eyes and aghast expressions and occasionally breaking down in tears. Sex therapy is serious, important and necessary, but dealing with it in an intimate-confessional unscripted TV format -- with editing that superimposes an "arc" on the couple's story and wraps things up neatly by the final credits -- can't help but turn private pain into public theater, and make viewers wonder if these couples might not be better off seeking treatment for exhibitionism. (Berman hosts a show on Sirius XM radio, a medium that cloaks honesty in anonymity and neutralizes gripes about voyeuristic pandering.) "He hasn't touched my genitals in a year," a wife says of her husband. And on that note, I close my laptop, pause the digital video recorder and flee to the snowy streets in search of lunch, and respite. And Tylenol.

The 1 p.m. (noon central) timeslot featured a preview of the upcoming reality series "Kidnapped by the Kids." The OWN website describes it as follows: "Can a workaholic really learn how to be a better parent from his or her own child? In this series, children are empowered to stand up to their overworked parents. It's good-bye to cell phones and computers, and hello to family time with the kids at the helm. It's a heart-warming journey that empowers real families to rediscover what family is all about." A hyperlink beneath the summary says, "Know someone who should be on Kidnapped by the Kids? Tell us their story!"

I have no idea if this series is good or bad. I didn't watch a frame of it. Why?

I pop a couple of Tylenol, eat a nice lunch at local Middle Eastern place and think about it.

While leaving the apartment I told myself I'd bailed on the series because I needed food and painkillers, and an escape from the Oprah vortex. But maybe it's really because I read the summary beforehand and thought, "A man spending New Year's Day filing a column about a new cable channel cannot possibly render a dispassionate judgment on such a program." I told myself I was giving the show a break, but I was probably giving myself a pass. What would Orange Dr. Phil make of that? Being a devoted Oprah footsoldier, he'd probably direct me to that hyperlink.

As I reopen the laptop and prepare to re-enter the OWN-iverse -- headache subsiding, good mood returning -- I resolve to continue resisting Oprah's warm-fuzzy empowerment sorcery, but it proves impossible.

The 2 pm/1 pm c slot previews the aforementioned "Oprah Presents Master Class."

The first subject is rapper and music mogul Jay-Z. His rags-to-riches story is interspersed with appearances by Oprah summarizing the moral and psychological lessons learned in the segment I just watched. She tells us famous people like Jay-Z -- and by extension everybody -- can avoid identity crises by knowing who they were to begin with. (Cut to Jay-Z observing that he's had the same haircut for years, etc.) More pap!

And yet....A funny thing happens somewhere near the two-thirds mark, right around the point where Jay-Z starts talking about the impact of his father abandoning him, and his struggle to define himself as a man while surrounded by negative male role models, and his determination to pass his wisdom on to younger people: I start to care about Jay-Z, and feel grateful to Oprah for letting him tell his story.

By the time the network segues into its 3 PM/2 PM central time preview -- "Enough Already!", starring the bizarrely soul-patched anti-clutter crusader Peter Walsh -- I have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome and am making lists of clutter to remove from my own home and resolving to enroll immediately in a cooking class, the better to feed the kids I cruelly shunted aside in order to write this.

Damn you, Oprah Winfrey, and Happy New Year.

Matt Zoller Seitz

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