Dear Oprah Winfrey:
It’s been a month and a half since you announced that you would be forfeiting the much-deserved vacation you planned to take after the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to devote yourself to the struggling Oprah Winfrey Network. Now, I realize that is not a lot of time, but I’ve seen the description of the new fall lineup, and I’m a little concerned.
The new “Rosie O’Donnell Show” could be terrific, or not, as Rosie tends to be, but the three other new shows — a reality show about a St. Louis family-owned soul food restaurant (“Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s”), a wedding makeover show (“Don’t Tell the Bride”) and a series of interviews with famous people (“Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind”) — seem simply more of the same. That is, reality TV designed to inspire us.
When you began your network, you said you did not want to contribute to the air of “meanness” you felt permeated much of television. Unfortunately, the folks at OWN appear to believe that the only alternative to “mean” is earnest. As in earnest documentaries, earnest reality shows or earnest, expert-driven self-help. All of which require, by their very nature, an endless succession of troubled individuals attempting to better their lives through selective revelation and the acceptance of the healing power of self-love. In “Finding Sarah,” which boiled the OWN narrative down to its essentials, the former duchess of York sought self-esteem as if she were on some psychological treasure hunt.
The few shows that tried to provide a little counterpoint — “Becoming Chaz,” “The O’Neals,” “Our America With Lisa Ling” — were overwhelmed by the insistent harmony of the choir singing to the preacher.
Here’s the thing. Too much “inspiration” is a drag, and too much advice is annoying. As on your iconic show, they need to be balanced with other flavors. Here are a few ingredients from your own recipe for success that you seem to have misplaced:
1. Fiction. Do you only choose uplifting nonfiction for your vaunted book club? No, you do not. So there had better be a scripted drama or two in the works, because reality, as a genre, is based on our need to judge our fellow humans no matter how much you tart it up with good works. An obvious choice would be to create the Oprah version of “Masterpiece Theatre,” in which your favorite modern novels could be dramatized, but there are plenty of series ideas out there that would work for OWN, just as female cop shows have worked for TNT and the oddball-driven procedurals have worked for USA.
2. Humor. For a woman who has used humor so effectively in the rest of her career, you have allowed it to be all but excised from your network. Things do not need to be mean to be funny. Rosie will no doubt add some sass, but don’t be afraid to go younger — I am sure there are hundreds of comedians, female and male, dying to come up with the OWN version of “The Daily Show.” Seriously, how great would that be? And TV could use a smart sitcom about women doing something other than coping with smart-mouth kids.
3. Dissent. What lifted “The View” from a.m. background noise was the fact that the women honestly did not agree with one another on many things. Just ask Rosie. Conflict provides both energy and integrity to television — if everyone agrees all the time, someone is lying a lot, and I’m not talking about scientists arguing with theologians about the nature of miracles (although that show would have worked better if every episode hadn’t ended with them agreeing to disagree or if it had been a scripted drama with a little romantic tension.)
4. Romantic tension. Are you telling us that love and sex aren’t parts of living your best life, Oprah? Because all we’ve gotten so far are a show about infidelity and Dr. Laura Berman dealing with a bunch of troubled marriages. Who needs to turn on the TV to see those? If we can’t smolder and make out, we don’t want any part of your revolution.
5. Contrast. Currently, OWN is so determined to be upbeat it’s become one-note. Watch it for a few hours and you feel like you’re going to church. If you think you’re reinventing television, you’re not — right now, you’re just making it a bit more self-righteous.
But give yourself a break, Oprah. You don’t have to reinvent it; there are plenty of terrific templates out there that you can tweak and twist and Oprahfy to your heart’s content. Just please try to have some fun while you’re doing it. For a woman who now runs her own network, you don’t seem to be enjoying yourself, and frankly, neither are we.