Happy New Year! Or should we say: Happy Oprah Year!
I don't know how you spent your first few days of 2011, but I was immersed — or perhaps baptized is a better word — in the launch of OWN, which isn't just another cable channel. The Oprah Winfrey Network is a crusade, on a mission of unyielding and unapologetic uplift, inviting us into an electronic big-tent revival where each weepy show should come with its own supply of Kleenex and where all of Oprah's ambassadors stay relentlessly on message. That message, conveyed by Oprah Winfrey herself in an oft-repeated introductory hour, is to deliver "the kind of TV that wouldn't waste your time," that urges each viewer to "live your best life."
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The most entertaining and highest-rated show in OWN's first days was, no surprise, the show that featured the most Oprah: Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, a fascinating peek inside the control room and behind the curtain of The Oprah Winfrey Show's emotionally exhausting (to its staff, at least) final season. A scrumptious bonbon for the Oprah fan and for anyone who loves TV, the show lets us gape at Oprah's plush offices as her eager and anxious producers pitch ideas to the Queen of TV, then frantically go about executing their concepts and her vision. (Season 25 airs a new episode Friday night, and is joined by the premiere of Your Own Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star, a reality competition in which the winner gets to host a show on OWN in the future.)
One thing we learn about Oprah on Behind the Scenes, as the producers keep trying to jolt her into crying jags on stage: "I don't like being surprised." And the biggest problem with OWN, besides the sameness of so much of the programming, is how little innovation or surprise there is in the shows where Oprah doesn't appear. (Even a fun roundtable format like Ask Oprah's All-Stars feels like a three-ring circus sorely lacking its ringmaster.)
Slickly packaged series like Enough Already! (a scolding Supernanny for hoarders), Miracle Detectives and In the Bedroom feel indistinguishable from things you can find anywhere on cable. Some are worse. Do we really need a show like the sneak-peeked Kidnapped By the Kids (returning this spring), where workaholic parents are ambushed by their neglected offspring? In an economy where many feel lucky just to have a job, this kind of weekly guilt trip seems tone deaf.
But that's nothing compared to the insufferable ego trip of Oprah Presents Master Class, in which overexposed A-listers like Diane Sawyer and Jay-Z spend an entire hour blabbing into the camera about how fabulous they are. These aren't interviews as much as self-infatuated seminars. Where's Oprah to ground it?
Still, even when it veers into the realm of Spinach TV — so good-for-you that it feels more dutiful than good — OWN is by and large a refreshing respite from the wearying, soul-numbing cable norm, which often exploits and celebrates our worst behaviors. If a real housewife ever shows up here, expect soul-baring, not hair-pulling. And that's a situation you'd have to be a cynic not to applaud.
Thankfully, there was other TV to distract us from the Oprah express this week. Some highlights:
HOW I MET MY MAKER: With a countdown gimmick. Really? How I Met Your Mother throws a tragic monkey wrench into the baby-making plans of Marshall and Lily by having Marshall's boisterous dad suddenly die (off screen) of a heart attack. The reveal is beautifully played by Jason Segal ("I'm not ready for this") and Alyson Hannigan, but the impact is marred by an intrusive countdown device throughout the episode, in which giant numbers (on book covers, manila folders, various doors, a condiment bottle, etc.) counting down from 50 signal that something is about to happen. I'm all for bringing heart and soul to coming-of-age comedy, and that includes the inevitable sad milestone, but the tone of this episode is all over the place. Including our last memory of Marshall's dad yelling "Cox! Cox! Cox!" outside the bathroom door where Marshall is trying to you-know-what. But we do get to meet Barney's doppelganger, a doctor with a beard ("It's like looking into a poorly dressed mirror"), so at least that's over with. And Robin learns to "steer into the skid" and make fun of her checkered caught-on-video past (a fun montage), so she can finally fit in at the news channel.
FINALE WATCH: If the last few episodes of The Closer this season are any indication of what to expect in its final year this summer (Kyra Sedgwick's call), the show is going to go out on a high. There was a powerful two-parter over the Christmas weeks involving the murders of members of an Albanian family by a war criminal hiding in plain sight, and this week's season finale was just as strong. Brenda and Lt. Gabriel uncharacteristically clash over her kid-glove handling of a crack addict/murder suspect, and it isn't until recovering alcoholic Fritz tells his wife that an addict can be both a decent person (on the surface) and a monster that she comes to her senses and nails the loser. Pretty sobering stuff, literally, and as much as I'm going to hate to see this show go in the next year, I'm glad it's not limping to the finish line.
VICTIM OF THE WEEK: Who suffered more this week than Taryn Manning? First, she's locked in a trunk as Steve McGarrett's kidnapped sister Lucy on a mythology-heavy Hawaii Five-0 (Wo Fat!); then she appears as a rape victim trying unsuccessfully to escape her tortured childhood (the worst parts caught on viral video) on a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In both cases, she manages to rise above. Nicely done.
LAUGHING MATTERS: There is no happier place on TV than ABC on Wednesdays. For 90 minutes — skipping past Better With You, a misfire the night would be better off without — we are in comedy bliss.
First up, another wonderful episode of the underrated The Middle, in which Frankie and Mike get fed up with being slaves to their ungrateful kids and put themselves first for a change. (Horrified reaction from Axl: "Gawd! If you won't do anything for us, why did you even have kids?") Shedding their "stump mentality," the parents take back the house, and even go out with friends to dance to a Little River Band cover band. "It has been like being on vacation in Paris or Myrtle Beach — it's that good," gushes Frankie. (And it's that "Myrtle Beach" joke that rings so Hoosier true. This show gets it.) The break is short-lived, because there are props to buy for a daughter's silly cafeteria dance routine, trips to the library and assorted other parental duties to fulfill. It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it. And deep down, they actually love it. Within reason.
Then comes main course Modern Family, and I concur with our Cheer on the inspired guest casting of James Marsters and Jami Gertz. But the episode is ultimately hijacked by little Nolan Gould as the adorable Luke, who declares himself "teacher of the year" as he wields a most effective training tool: a water gun that snaps Gloria out of her bike-riding phobia and later spurs older sis Haley into getting an answer right while studying.
As the night's fizzy, dizzy dessert, Cougar Town rarely fails to beguile, and if this week's episode makes us cringe with the thuddingly obvious soft drink product placement, we get compensating pleasures. Jules accidentally kills a dove with a frying pan and wonders, "Do doves hold grudges?" But lest we confuse it as a symbol of doomed romance, this is also the episode where Grayson finally tells "angel of death" Jules he loves her precisely because they're so crazily different. Awww. Calls for a coffee (sorry, Big Carl). Maybe a "Taye Diggs," which Laurie describes as "black and extra strong and smooth but also very sweet." Seriously, ABC comedies, you make my week.
TWO LEFT FEET: No gold stars to Paula Abdul's drearily derivative Live to Dance, which might as well be called So You Think ANYBODY Can Dance. A glib, insipid rip-off of every performance-competition show you've ever seen, but with a special debt to America's Got Talent as it patronizes the very young and the very old (while asking more talented groups and individuals to dance for their lives, because Harry and Martha in Heartland USA may just not get ballet). "You can't teach people what oozes out of you," Paula gushes, less incoherent and also less entertaining than on Idol, because she has only sycophants to bounce off of, no Simon anywhere to be seen. This has the "X" factor, all right — as in, I'm already crossing it off my DVR list. (And according to my mail, CBS did no favors launching the show in NCIS' Tuesday time period. Even a one-week pre-emption does not sit well with these fans. Maybe if Pauley Perrette had been a guest judge, or had performed a Pauley pirouette during a break?)
EXIT STRATEGY: The eliminations were especially aggravating this week on Bravo competitions The Fashion Show and, more notably, Top Chef: All Stars. Not so much in terms of who left — although Casey will be missed on Top Chef — but in who was allowed to stay. On Fashion, where the challenge is to design wedding costumes for gay/lesbian couples, proudly obnoxious crap-testant Calvin Tran insults and bullies his male client with psychotic zeal: "I'm not your seamstress! You want me to sew something for you, go to China," he barks at a guy who only wants to represent Korea in his flowing wedding gown. No deal. Calvin won't give in, and everyone else just gives up. And as the client tells the judges later, "I couldn't believe they stuck me with this clown." But because Calvin's partner Cindy makes an even worse male garment, she is sent packing. And Calvin, rightly described by his disgruntled client as having "no taste and no class," stays on, continuing to defy this season's theme of fashion-house unity. No one wants to work with him, no one can stand him, but without him, the show is even more negligible, which is why they keep him around. And which is why so many people detest reality TV.
Similarly, Top Chef's most irritating underperformer Jamie is allowed to skate by again, despite flaming out on all of her dim sum dishes. This week's victim is Casey, who makes the sacrificial decision to work the front of a very unruly house of underfed patrons and leaves her risky chicken-foot experiment in others' hands. Those others let her, and us, down, and because the judges deem her dish the most inedible, Casey is gone. And Jamie continues to sour our broth. Not well played, people. (But props to Fabio for finally stepping up with a savory rib dish, and especially for revealing his devotion to his pet turtle, who we see him walking on a leash. Win!) And what a great Quickfire challenge, as the chefs try to match Tom Colicchio's speed in the kitchen. "Seeing Tom cook like us is rad," marvels Marcel. So true.
HONOR ROLL: ABC's always enjoyable Castle kicked off the new year with a fun stunt, as we meet the movie star who will play Beckett's fictional alter ego Nikki Heat: Laura Prepon as Natalie Rhodes, "the chainsaw-wielding hooker from House of Screams" (Castle's dismayed first response). Prepon has a great time rattling everyone's cage. Initially, she snubs the writer, a new experience for Castle, and then she irks the initially flattered Beckett by aping her too closely. "She takes my coffee, Castle! What next, my soul?" But when Natalie decides to sleep with Castle for "character research," everyone decides she's pretty creepy. But there' no doubt she's a quick study. She even convinces this week's killer to put down his gun. Fun times.
Also roaring back in fine form: Grey's Anatomy, with a trauma-rama (a mass shooting at a local college) forcing the Seattle Grace docs to relive the horrors of their own season-ending massacre. (This time, there are no casualties.) The happiest development: Cristina, who rides in on an ambulance, is finally back in business, working alongside Teddy to save the disturbed shooter, while others gripe they should give up the precious OR space to his victims. (L.A. Law's beloved Susan Ruttan is sensational as the shooter's grieving, clueless mother — whom Avery comforts, after having walked out on the boy's surgery.) New villain on rounds: Peter McNicol as the snippy new peds attending who nearly amputates a kid's leg unnecessarily. Poor Arizona. Not only does the prodigal doc now to deal with Callie's cold shoulder (sigh and ugh), but now she's going to have to work under this pipsqueak.
DESPERATELY SEEKING RELIEF: From Desperate Housewives, serving up one dismal storyline after another. Susan needs a kidney. Orson wheels himself back into Bree's house and has a food fight with Brian Austin Green because he wears an undershirt to the table. Lynette learns of Tom's fling with Vanessa Williams, but instead of confronting him, she passive-agressively sets out to punish him with sadistic pranks. And Gaby is bonding with a doll that looks like her birth daughter. Is it too late to pretend this season never happened?
THE GAME OF LIFE: [SPOILER ALERT for those unable to watch Friday Night Lights on DirecTV] "Fracture" is the title of one of this uneven final season's strongest episodes to date, referring in part to young Buddy Jr. suffering a bad break when indulging in Billy Riggins' Samoan war cry warm-up. (Billy is not getting along with the more serious coaches.) It's a metaphor for the tensions threatening to break apart the East Dillon Lions at their moment of glory. Vince, being led down ethically questionable paths by his father, is the catalyst for most of the conflict. He clashes again with Coach Taylor when he skips practice to be wooed in person at Oklahoma Tech and then lies about it, using his mother as an inexcusable excuse. He's on the outs with his teammates after failing to give them any credit during a cocky TV interview. By the time of the next pep rally, everyone's at each others throats and a disconsolate Coach Taylor can barely bring himself to utter the word "victory." Daughter Julie's annoying subplot takes a promising twist, but only after her amorous smarmy T.A. Derek bone-headedly comes to the front door, chased away by an angry Eric, then goes to Tami's office to reveal that he's resigned and is only there to urge Julie back to college. And go back she does — well, almost. When she gets Derek on the phone to admit that his real intent was to woo her back, she turns her car around — and heads straight to Matt Saracen. Woo-hoo!
AS SEEN AND HEARD ON TV: "Sorry about losing my temper. My bad. Love — A" — the latest taunt, inscribed on the cast of hit-and-run victim Hannah's broken leg, in the climax of the first new episode back of the irredeemably pervy Pretty Little Liars. ... "This is one of those cases that makes me wonder if it's time to retire." — Judge John Collum creeped out by the sordid goings-on in Law & Order: SVU. (Funny, that thought went through my mind when I saw the robust ratings for Pretty Little Liars.) ... "Is Wizards of Waverly Place over yet?" — The Middle's papa Mike hiding in the bedroom while his kids hog the main TV. The heart bleeds. ... "Don't give me the coyote look. I'm not a canine." — Cameron to interloper James Marsters on Modern Family, as he tries to evict the hunky stranger from his daughter's princess castle. ... "Ice is melting, oil spilled, black president — love it! — people watching movies on their cell phones, and ohh, Lady Gaga!" — A Cliff's Notes version of current events from Cougar Town oracle Bobby "Talking Dog" Cobb. ... "You're so white. You look like somebody put too much bleach on you. You look like you might be carved out of Ivory Soap. You really are white." — Comedy legend Phyllis Diller, still kicking at 93 (take that, Betty White!), remarking on Anderson Cooper's complexion during a CNN hour of funny-lady chat in the time period that will soon go to the transparently smug Piers Morgan.
That's a wrap. Lots of new shows in the week ahead, including FX's excellent Lights Out. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!
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