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On OWN’s ‘Finding Sarah,’ getting to the roots of a royal’s pain

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The royal wedding afterglow has subsided enough so that a certain television viewer can wallow in the morose, almost 19th-century-novel-like existence of one Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, ex-wife of Prince Andrew, mother of the mad-hatted Eugenie and Bea, and the woman who was most definitely not invited to Wills and Kate’s nuptials.

The original Fergie is now persona non grata, and it just kills her. She may be one of the saddest people on Earth — certainly on her Earth. “The mind is such an extraordinary place,” she muses at the opening of her fascinating but bummed-out new reality show, “Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World,” which premieres Sunday night on OWN. “We appear to be not broken, but we’re broken. And I am broken. It hurts. . . . I’ve lost who I really am and this torments me.”

Ever since a London tabloid tricked Fergie into a bribery scheme in 2010 and captured it on video for all the world to see, she has been disconsolate, lost, humiliated.

Physically, her face and demeanor corroborate her funk: She is 51 going on 79, but do not read that as a cutting remark of the ravages of age. Padding around the English country estate on which her ex-husband (and by extension, the monarchy) allows her to live rent-free, she is a thing of exquisitely painful beauty in pink Wellington rain boots, not afraid at this point at being seen without makeup or brushed hair, because people this depressed rarely are.

Which unfortunately means she’s perfect for a reality show.

Though treated with the stylish, empathy-drenched care that only the Oprah Winfrey Network can provide, “Finding Sarah” should not be mistaken for anything other than what it is: one more has-been celebrity with her own camera crew, laying her emotions and daily dramas bare in the hope of salvaging her personal brand.

In the show’s opening, she talks of taking a personal journey to discover her true self. Now it’s not like a 19th-century novel anymore; the language is far too wrapped up in the narcissism of now. She hops a flight to Los Angeles to get started on her regimen of self-awareness.

Here, we begin to witness the full synergistic vision of what the Oprah channel intends to be. Fergie’s first stop is a frank appointment with Dr. (or, as some like to call him, “Dr.,” with air quotes) Phil McGraw, the famous syndicated TV therapist and self-help guru of Oprahworld; in the same episode, she will bond with Suze Orman, the successful financial adviser. Eventually, they will pass Fergie on to the welcoming bosom of Winfrey, who, in a future episode, will counsel the duchess on the mysteries of true joy, or whatever.

In her Dr. Phil session, Sarah unloads a bit about her childhood, in which her parents divorced, the ponies had to be sold and the only comfort came from scarfing down sweets. Mother ran off to South America and was eventually decapitated in a car wreck. Father showed no love.

“You are depressed; you have self-hatred,” Dr. Phil remarks, displaying his acuity for the obvious.

Actually, through his usual hokum about “finding your personal truth,” Dr. Phil brings a real value to this show. He refuses to accept Sarah’s deflective rationalizations about the bribery scandal. He sees through her denial and makes her deeply uncomfortable. Now we have a TV show.

After her first session with Dr. Phil, it’s back across the pond. On the chauffeured ride home (“Where are my sweeties?” she asks her driver, pawing around the back seat for candy), Sarah longingly watches Buckingham Palace drift by. It’s all quite stagey, but on another level there’s an authenticity to it. Has there ever been a reality series built around someone so blue? It’s mesmerizingly glum; while watching it, there can be little doubt that this show could easily have starred Lady Diana instead, if things had gone differently in that Paris tunnel 14 years ago.

Dr. Phil has declared Sarah “emotionally bankrupt,” which is handy, because Orman has arrived on the estate to talk frankly with Sarah about financial bankruptcy.

True to form, Orman immediately seeks to answer questions we’ve all had about the royals, down to decimal points: “How does it work?” she demands of the duchess, who is reluctant to divulge, in exact British pounds, the particulars of her current living situation. Why the poor-mouthing? What’s her monthly budget? How much money does Sarah have that she can call her own?

“A little,” Sarah replies.

“How much is a little?” Orman asks.

“A little,” Sarah says.

We all know Ms. Suze don’t play that (“De-niiiiiied!”), and one hopes the duchess is fond of being called “girlfriend” in every other sentence, because Orman has decided that desperate Sarah is to be her new pet project. “You need to make money,” Orman says, and here you may be astonished (as I was) to learn that there was not just one Budgie the Little Helicopter children’s book, nor just a diet book or two, but that Sarah Ferguson is the author of 30 books. Thirty.

Sarah fretfully changes the subject: “What about everyone in Britain who is looking at this and thinking ‘She’s so self-obsessed?’ ”

“Who cares what they think?!” Orman barks.

After a pause, the duchess replies: “Hmm. I do.”

“You won’t when you’re on your deathbed,” Orman says. And later: “Do you like yourself?”

Of course Sarah doesn’t like herself. She is firmly rooted in that quintessential English sense of self-loathing and regret. It’s all she knows. These Americans all seem to possess magic beans of self-love. “Do you like yourself?” Sarah asks Orman.

“I have a crush on myself,” Orman declares. “Oh, yes — I do.”

And that is just lesson 1.

Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
on OWN.

© The Washington Post Company