Lisa Ling is an inquisitive, journalistically inclined 37-year-old TV personality - you may remember her from a prehistoric permutation of "The View" or from her globe-trotting reports for CNN and National Geographic's "Explorer."
At present, she has been sent on an empathetic, coast-to-coast quest by OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in search of the marginal and more baffling and ambivalent mysteries of modern life. Find the sexual hang-ups and abuse victims; find the Jesus of billboards and megachurches; find the saints and sinners, the hated and the haters.
"Our America With Lisa Ling," debuting Tuesday night, is an intelligent, ruminative affirmation on the ways life might resemble a daytime talk show. Ling comes across as a sympathetic seeker of true stories about who we really are and all that. Whereas Charles Kuralt, in his reportorial road-trip heyday, was on the hunt for artisanal glass-blowing and community fish fries, Ling exits the interstates to locate faith healers babbling in tongues.
Then it's on to transgender people at various stages of conversion, including one boy who is 6 years old and has changed his name from Harry to Hailey. In a later episode, she seeks out sex offenders who've been banished to living in tents in the Florida woods. Then she's off to a meeting for gays and lesbians trying to pray themselves straight.
Each of these subjects also has a certain unknowability that seems to break Ling's heart, which is what makes the show worth watching. America, she says in the opening credits, "can be inspiring and beautiful. . . . It can also be dark and ugly. It's so many things, but it's ours. It's our America." She says this with nearly the same tone you would say "Smell this" to your housemate while handing over an expired carton of milk. Has it spoiled?
The America that Ling focuses on has a rainy, rusted-out gloom. In the premiere, she travels to a Bible college in Fort Mill, S.C., located on "the remnants of a former theme park," which is unmistakably that of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's long-forgotten Heritage USA boondoggle.
Now a Bible college and center for faith-healing, it beckons end-stage cancer patients and irreparably injured paraplegics to its refurbished hotel atrium. "What drew me to this story is [to find out] what inspires people to believe in miracles," Ling says. "It has challenged everything I thought I knew about faith."
OWN has rolled out several shows since its January debut, but so far, "Our America" seems best suited to Winfrey's overriding concept for an educational network. "Our America" asks a lot of questions without requiring an ultimate answer; in tone and intent, it reminds me of the quality TV magazine journalism that predated the infotainment glut.
Only now, objectivity has become Oprahtivity, and each assignment leaves Ling in a bit of an emotional lurch. She is deeply moved by her subjects but none the wiser. She discovers all sorts of darkness, sadness, guilt - and the best she can offer is an understanding nod, a hug and, of course, a camera.
Our America With Lisa Ling (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on OWN.