By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; E01
Granting an hour-long, prime-time interview to her friend Barbara Walters earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey spoke of self-sacrifice in such a way that the taping ought to have taken place in the garden of Gethsemane.
In preparing to wrap up 25 years of her daytime talk show, the epic cultural influence of which defies measurement, and starting the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which will be filled with purpose-driven lifestyle programming and seen in some 80 million households, Winfrey told Walters she sees herself neither as billionaire nor celebrity. In the end, she is but a vessel of God:
"Use me," Winfrey said she asks the Lord. "Use me until you use me up."
She has a way of basking too often in the very miracle of herself - a poor Southern black child lifted to global prominence - and yet her real skill is how she invites you to bask in your own miraculousness. Everything is geared toward becoming, rejuvenating, and appropriately enough to the new year, resolving. Your personal sense of Oprahness, as well as your ability to be everything Oprah hopes you can be, is entirely up to . . . you.
This Oprah-as-earthen-vessel notion stuck with me as I dived into previews of some of the shows that will be seen on OWN when it launches at noon on New Year's Day.
While far from perfect, the network is suffused with a desire to ennoble, share, cleanse and elevate. Admiring what turned out to be a fairly nutritious array of new ideas in OWN's initial offerings, I found myself imagining the world a few centuries from now. There is only one prediction to make about the future (and I'm not the first to make it) and it is this: There will be Oprah churches all over the world. OWN is just one step in a process that will more fully (and valiantly, it turns out) spread the Oprah worldview.
I'm not sure how these churches will reconcile the many theological qualms that will arise - can Oprah align with the Trinity? etc. - but one thing Oprah church historians will have, barring any digital archive disaster, is the Christmastime story of the birth of OWN.
With new reality-based shows about clutter, sex, relationships, families, miracles, spiritual balance, healthy cooking and a daily dose of Oprah's BFF Gayle King's talk show, we shall see the fullest, epistolary template for what Oprah desired most for her devoted minions.
Watching OWN's shows, I noticed that they all in one way or another carry a classy Oprah-worthy imprimatur, in which value is placed on truth and learning.
Nowhere is that more evident than on "Oprah Presents Master Class," a cinema-quality, on-camera conversation that is edited into something like a monologue about the meaning of life. The first episodes of "Master Class" feature Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer; forthcoming episodes will feature more larger-than-life personalities: Simon Cowell, Maya Angelou, Lorne Michaels - a group of people who could be thought of as Almost as Big as Oprah.
The point here is to extract their wisdom and reassemble it in a way that is edifying and absorbing. It's not an interview with Oprah, per se, who only appears occasionally to provide narration or effuse. Instead, "Master Class" is more like Oprah's version of one of those too-slick biographical films of presidential candidates shown at election-year conventions.
The rest of OWN, for the time being, more resembles that endless supply of how-to shows and busy-mom shows and that-looks-delicious shows that cable viewers already spend so much time watching.
And then, without warning, OWN finds its sweet spot with the story of a woman who can only reach sexual climax with the help of an overturned purple laundry basket.
Placed just so.
That would be the first episode of "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman," a sex-therapy show that, if nothing else, fully illustrates Oprah's devotion to the baring of personal details. It was she, after all, who brought Dr. Ahmet Oz into national renown for his ability to get us talking about the size and shape of our excrement - especially Oprah's own output.
Likewise, sex. The upbeat and no-nonsense Berman, who's had her own radio show for a while on Winfrey's Harpo satellite network, goes to people's homes and talks to them about their lackluster sex lives. From the first episode, Berman obliterates whatever residual blushing remains from the olden days when Dr. Ruth Westheimer talked about vibrators and lubricant on late-night call-in shows.
"In the Bedroom" takes one question (such as, "What can I do about the fact that my husband and I haven't had sex in five months?") and visits the home of the questioner, putting an everyday couple through a grueling crash course in sex therapy. If OWN were more cynically devised, "In the Bedroom" would be on constantly, while the nation sits rapt with mesmerized embarrassment. It's that good, and it's likely the network's surefire hit.
Berman arrives in suburban Wisconsin to visit Becky, 33, and Steve, 36. They have two kids. She works full time and he mostly stays at home doing the chores - which is such a turnoff, Becky says. She wants a take-charge man who will "wear the pants" and boss her around a little, especially between the sheets. But, as the doctor quickly ascertains, Becky has troubles with her own bossiness.
"I hate that I don't respect him," Becky says.
We hate it, too, and feel awful for Steve; perhaps a bit less so when Becky finally reveals to Berman that one of the problems in the bedroom that a crucial part of Steve is "too large." He manages the most subtle smile here, and the viewer no longer feels quite so bad for him.
In their 15 years together, Becky's somehow become addicted to the laundry basket, overturned so she can lean on it for maximized satisfaction - a trick she learned on her own and now incorporates into the couple's lovemaking. (Oh, I've certainly said too much now. Frantic editors are poised to backspace over whatever else I type about the laundry basket from here on.)
"In the Bedroom" illustrates one of Oprah's and OWN's core missions: to create a safe space where we can talk about anything, presuming a level of maturity and openness that Oprah worked nearly three decades to create in her audiences. OWN asks us if we are able to deal - indeed, if we are ready to deal - with any subject in the frankest possible manner.
It's difficult to launch an entire network at once and hope for a cohesive identity, but I'm struck by OWN's consistency. Although the shows are made by a variety of production outfits, the basic tenets of living Oprah-style come through loud and clear:
1. Stuff is only stuff.
2. Parenting is golden.
3. You are special.
OWN appears to be building its case deliberately, but the network also easily succumbs to contrivance in the name of reality. Some of the programming feels either familiar or thin.
"Enough Already," a home de-cluttering show, is hosted by Peter Walsh, an Australian-born professional organizer who several years ago de-cluttered on "Clean Sweep," a less sassy version of the Style network's hit show called "Clean House."
Except for A&E's "Hoarders," which delves into the stench and filth of diagnosed mental illness, shows about clutter follow a set path: We descend on a house overcome by stacks of paper and laundry, boxes of who-knows-what, bric-a-brac gathering dust, and then attempt to separate the 90 percent that is trash from the 10 percent that is treasure. "Enough Already" also extracts the tears (nobody gets a living room redone for free around here) and imparts its lesson of . . . well, it's tricky. Clutter shows walk a fine line between anti-consumer hectoring and promoting good organizing and cleaning habits, courtesy of advertisers' helpful organizing and cleaning products, which means more shopping.
Every show on OWN has a lesson, and some are more scolding than others. "Kidnapped by the Kids" is after those parents who spend too much time traveling for business (making money, in this economy - the nerve of them!) or staying late at the office and then obsessing over their BlackBerrys once they get home for dinner.
Hank, a 30-something traveling businessman, is intercepted by his 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son at LAX before he can catch yet another flight to San Jose. His son tells Hank that all the business travel he does "makes me feel like you want to be in another family," which brings Hank to tears.
And so he unplugs for a week, skips work and allows the children to take him camping, swimming, shopping. It's these sorts of shows where every shot begins to feel stagy; the subjects begin to speak and narrate for the camera in ways that sound rehearsed and repetitious. We never learn what Hank actually does for a living; all we know is that he does too much of it. He has committed OWN's cardinal sin of Forgetting What's Really Important.
Spirit - which is to say the spiritual world; religion; faith; both specific and amorphous ideas of God - certainly qualifies as one of OWN's favorite topics.
This could be the network's surest path to originality, treating with tender care the mysteries of faith. "Miracle Detectives" reminds me of a combination of "The X-Files" and those shows where people spend a lot of time not finding ghosts.
Here, a skeptical neuroscientist and a Rolling Stone writer who has experienced a religious awakening get to travel around and investigate situations in which people strongly believe that a supreme being has intervened.
This takes them to an old church in northern New Mexico to see if the dirt there really has healing powers. The spiritually minded writer is naturally enthralled by the story of a woman who was cured of cancerous bone lesions after touching the dirt; while the scientist derives from a lab analysis that the best the bicarbonate dirt can do is provide some gas relief when stirred into a glass of water.
Then they go to a North Carolina hospital where security cameras captured images of what the nurses believe was an ethereal being entering the room of a dying girl who then recovered. Here, the neuroscientist enlists the help of window blinds and sunlight, and it's case closed. Except that the writer still believes in a "deeper truth" - the great unseen.
Which brings it back around to a higher power.
Which brings it back around, in a subtextual way, to Oprah herself.
I'm only half-kidding about there one day being churches in which Oprah's image is holographically enshrined in stained glass. And because she so tirelessly encourages inquiry, education and basic joy, I can think of worse things around which to build a faith-based organization.
As a movement, Oprahism can no longer be contained in a single show or magazine or Web site. At its best, OWN carefully illuminates the Oprah way. At its worst, the network is simply like any other mediocre cable channel, desperate to fill its schedule grid with shows that feel new enough to draw viewers in and addictive enough to keep them couchbound.
Eventually OWN, too, lapses into showing movies packed with commercial breaks, which in this case means repeats of "An Officer and a Gentleman," "The Way We Were" and, yes, "The Color Purple" - old weepies disguised as sophisticated chick-flick stopgap programming.
That is the great discrepancy to a life spent Obeying Oprah: She asks you to live to the fullest, but to do that, you'll need to sit around a lot and watch TV.