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That 'Big Give' Feeling: Warm, Fuzzy & Familiar

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Whatever their various disparities, the contestants on Oprah Winfrey's new reality game show have one thing in common: They believe in themselves. And how! "This might be a chance for me to make a difference," says one aspiring do-gooder, eyes misty. "We are making this miracle happen," gushes another as she helps secure housing for a homeless woman.

"Oprah's Big Give," premiering tomorrow night on ABC, has roots that go way, way back in TV history -- to such mawkish '50s bawl games as "Strike It Rich" and "Queen for a Day," where contestants were rewarded for sob stories with such fabulous prizes as washers and dryers and mink coats.

Winfrey's version has a new wrinkle, which she explains in opening remarks: "What would you do if someone handed you a bundle of money, but there's a twist: You have to give all that money away?" Ah, but there's still another twist: The contestants who show the greatest ingenuity and gusto in handing out the bundles of money are eligible for a grand prize of 1 million bucks.

If that sounds like a distorted notion of philanthropy, Winfrey assures us that the million-dollar prize is a secret unbeknownst to the competitors. And yet, the fact that they are called competitors, and that in "American Idol" fashion someone is kicked off the show each week, obviously lets the players know that some sort of big fat pot is waiting at the end of the rainbow.

Now Empress Oprah is, as everyone knows, a very busy woman -- ever on the prowl in search of good deeds that need doing (helping Cub Scouts cross the street, perhaps) -- and so she could devote only a limited amount of time to "Big Give," her appearances whizzing by in a blur. She literally phones it in, in fact, plopping herself down at a speakerphone early in the premiere so she can call those who've been chosen as players and trill the glad tiding. A couple of them nearly suffer strokes at the news that her majesty is on the phone.

"Oh my God! Are you serious?!" one woman exclaims. "Wow, I don't believe it!" shouts a happy man. Winfrey shouts, too, of course, as is her custom on her own show. She may start a sentence speaking in a normal tone of voice, but as she nears the end, SHE RATCHETS UP TO CAPITAL LETTERS AND ESCALATES TO EXCLAMATION POINTS!

One essential flaw in Winfrey's show is that some contestants have stories as heart-rending as the needy people they're supposed to help. One contestant, a young woman who was the victim of a drunk driver, recalls how she became a paraplegic after the incident, and another notes that she was "sexually abused and physically abused" as a child. People rattle off hardships the way actors might recite their credits.

And one requirement of philanthropy, apparently, is having a good sense of direction. In a senseless nod to "Amazing Race," the contestants are not told precisely how to find the people they're supposed to help. Thus Kim and Marlene say they were "lost for seven hours" and "wasted a whole day" because they couldn't locate the needy Marine they're supposed to shower with dough. "We finally found our hotel, which was also a challenge," one of them reports, "and we never did find a phone."

While plugging the show in an interview, Winfrey promised "many moments that will leave you in tears of joy," and some of the stories are indeed genuinely moving. But the unsavory aura of exploitation is hard to ignore, even though Winfrey announced in the same interview, "I wouldn't be involved with anything that was going to humiliate or dehumanize or make anybody feel bad."

Although Winfrey might imagine she's doing something fresh and innovative, the trite staples of competitive reality pop up predictably: crowds cheering as large dollar amounts are shouted out, flowing tears and slow-motion hugs at pivotal moments, presentations of giant oversize checks that would never fit through a bank teller's window, and the big moment (excised from press copies of the show) when the judges announce who's hitting the road home.

To comply with some unwritten rule from the guide to such productions, one of the judges is British and snooty. How did they ever think of that?

'Unhitched'

Viewers have every right to expect a good time from "Unhitched," a television outing masterminded -- or maybe monsterminded -- by those wild and crazy Farrelly brothers of motion picture fame.

In addition to that auspicious credit, the sitcom stars Craig Bierko, whose last name sounds like stock-market shorthand for "beer company" and, more significant, proved himself ingratiatingly amusing as a Tom Cruise clone in "Scary Movie 4."

Bierko and others in the "Unhitched" cast unfortunately seem to be killing time while they wait for a really terrific script to be delivered; the one they were given is deficient in the most crucial way a comedy script can be: It pushes way too few laugh buttons, especially considering the justifiably lofty expectations.

The uncluttered premise is right there in the title; the friends in "Unhitched" are all walking away from the smoldering remains of failed relationships -- specifically, marriages put asunder. Some of their problems will be familiar to those who are or have been suddenly single: agonies of adjustment and of being unhappily alone again, reentering the wilderness of dating and searching that they thought they had escaped from forever.

Chief among the show's handicaps is a confused tone; are the Farrellys and their collaborators going way over the top into absurdist, gross-out farce, or will the situation and characters remain grounded in a nominal but essential reality? The show seesaws between attitudes and temperaments, reaching rock bottom early in the premiere with a gag-inducing gag about a chimp from Borneo attempting to leap ahead through centuries of evolution by mating, as it were, with a human.

Bierko, Rashida Jones, Shaun Majumder and Johnny Sneed all give their all (and Johnny Knoxville makes a modest attempt at a rib-tickling cameo), but the script slides out from under them and leaves them stranded. In a future episode made available for preview, one character says loudly, "There's a lot of heart in this show," thereby hitting the proverbial nail on its proverbial head:

There's not "a lot" of heart in the unhilarious "Unhitched" -- in fact, barely any.

Oprah's Big Give (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 7; Unhitched (30 minutes) premieres tomorrow night at 9:30 on Channel 5.

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