A Rare Misstep for O the Munificent

Media Reviews for Media People: 'Oprah's Big Give'

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Oprah Winfrey is a better person than I am.

I get this. Oprah hands out Pontiacs to upwardly mobile audience members; I hand out pennies and nickels to nice baristas. Oprah lavishes secondary-school educations and four-digit-thread-count sheets upon complete strangers in South Africa; I lavish Wet-Naps and unasked-for advice about girls upon my 3-year-old nephew. Oprah is a benevolent earth mother to all the little children; I am, well, me.
Oprah Winfrey and chef/judge Jamie Oliver on her ABC reality series 'Oprah's Big Give,' Which gave our critic a case of the icks
Oprah Winfrey and chef/judge Jamie Oliver on her ABC reality series 'Oprah's Big Give,' Which gave our critic a case of the icks Credit: ABC

But with "Oprah's Big Give," she's rubbing her munificent magnanimity in my face for the first time, and I don't like it. It's a rare misstep for the Big O, one in which she cranks up the do-gooder quotient to levels heretofore unseen on national TV. No, not even on "Extreme Makeover: Piteous Wretch Edition."

That's the show with which ABC has paired "Oprah's Big Give" on Sunday nights, thus giving the less cynical among us two solid hours of people-R-fundamentally-decent affirmation set to twinkly background music. Thematically, that decision makes a lot of sense -- or at least it would have if "Oprah's Big Give" didn't smear a cheap reality sheen atop its for-the-cameras bigheartedness.

I imagine the show got greenlit owing to Oprah's attachment, because the pitch -- "The Amazing Race" meets court-mandated community service -- would've prompted the pitchee to call for security. See, it's about helping others! No, wait -- it's a competition! No, wait -- it's a dessert topping! It's all three!

You get the point. Here are five other aspects of "Oprah's Big Give" that ring false to me.

1. Its central concept: "Big Give" sends 10 Oprah-approved contestants into the great unfortunate ether, giving them a few days to stir up assistance, financial and otherwise, for folks who have fallen on hard times. What the contestants don't know -- the show notes this 32 times per episode, usually using the words "what the contestants don't know" -- is that the most effective giver of giving will be given 1 million bucks.

So basically, the show creates a new and loathsome genre of programming: competitive philanthropy. Me, I've always been of the impression that doing good is reward enough in itself, which is why you'll never hear me crow about the arthritic orphans to whom I'm teaching table manners (oops). The only way for "Big Give" to redeem itself karmically would be if the eventual victor chooses to give away his winnings to people who need it. I place the odds of this happening at 72 million-to-1.

2. Its contestants: The "intense auditions" turned up a slate of wonderful human beings with well-manicured eyebrows and a pathological affinity for hugs. There's a singer who suffered physical abuse, a spunky gal in a wheelchair, a "pageant queen." There are black people, white people, young people, old people (but gosh, not too old, because anyone over 40 might shirk his philanthropic responsibilities to take a nap). It's as if the producers decided, "Here are the precise roles we'd like to fill," and found some folks who fit the mold.

They all seem nice enough, I suppose. They appear to be clean. They say "whooo!" a lot and keep the infighting to a minimum. In other words, they're a lot less interesting than the gals competing for Flavor Flav's heart. Soldier on, you plucky warriors.

3. Its subjects: They've all had a tough go of things, no doubt. What I hated -- and this might say more about me than it does the show -- is that "Big Give" prompted me to rank them in terms of worthiness. The family of a shooting victim is greater than the wounded war veteran is greater than the would-be Dr. Quinn, Medicine Man with 200 grand in med-school debt. The show encourages gawking and rubber-necking; it parades its subjects for public consumption, and that feels very, very wrong.

4. Its judges: Or, rather, that the conventions of reality TV demand that three individuals are put in the awkward position of telling contestants, "Sorry, you're not quite selfless enough." The elimination catchphrase, not likely to pop up on a Snorg hipster T-shirt anytime soon, is "Give big or go home." Me, I'd have gone with something along the lines of "You bad at bein' good, sucka-ass" or "Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame." This is why I'm more or less unemployable.

I have one request for the producers of televised reality competitions announced just before the end of the writers strike (the schoolmarms-in-sashes pageant "Hot For Teacher," the self-explanatory "Moishe's Big Bad Bar-Mitzvah Throw-Down" et al.): Ditch the typical judge-panel composition of a gal and two guys, one with a British lilt to his voice. Instead, hand the baton to a lone white male between the ages of 25 and 34 clad in a fraternity sweatshirt and encourage him to eat slices of American cheese while critiquing contestants with big-picture pronouncements like, "Dude, fat people can't swim."

5. Its clunky product placement: Oprahmobiles by Ford! Random detours into Target! A most propitious coincidence in which a contestant just happens to know of a Bridgestone-Firestone higher-up ... who just happens to be immediately accessible on the phone ... and just happens to pledge 25 grand to the cause!

Do this right or don't do it at all. None of these brands are well-served by being force-fed in a manner so transparent that even the slowest-blinking viewers will pick up on it. The one true opportunity here might be for record companies peddling James Blunt-ish singers who pack their power ballads with refrains like "Here comes the rest of our lives." "Oprah's Big Give" can't find enough egregiously emotional songs to accompany footage of the givers and givees hugging, crying and hugging once anew.

Listen, I admire Oprah Winfrey. I like that she takes the responsibility that comes with her global megacelebrity seriously. I respect that, for all her wealth and fame, she doesn't dole out endorsements indiscriminately or slap her brand on cut-rate Mexican Cuisinart knockoffs. I'm not jealous that her influence over media, politics, entertainment, fashion, commerce and John Travolta slightly exceeds my own.

This time around, though, I call bullshit. Even as it lends a helping hand to those in need, "Oprah's Big Give" wrings their circumstances for cheap emotion and profit. Maybe you can't spell "philanthropy" without O-P-R-A-H -- eerie, right? -- but you sure can change the channel to something less manipulative. Or better yet, go out and do a little good of your own.
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