Oprah Winfrey has the amazing ability to say things -- or rather make pronouncements - that might sound alarming from other people. As she told Barbara Walters about starting OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, "People deserve to have value-centered, inspirational programming." What? Imagine that value-centric statement coming from some tea-partying Sarah Palin clone and it takes on a far less innocuous tone.
With OWN, Oprah has set herself up to be America's life coach, so it's worth asking: exactly what values is she training us in? They are ultimately as benign as her motto, "live your best life," but much more complicated. OWN (the channel launched on New Year's Day) displays a whiff of spirituality, a huge amount of life-style fluff, and a surprising layer of substance.
If you're not a die-hard Oprah fan, if you wouldn't jump, squeal and wail like a banshee if someone gave you a Kindle or even a car, you can skip most of the programs. They are derivative, with an Oprah spin. There are cooking shows like Cristina Ferrare's Big Bowl of Love; was there ever a more Oprah-esque title? There's Enough Already! With Peter Walsh, in which the host gets families to unclutter their houses and lives, a less pathological version of A&E's Hoarders.
Oprah grasps the power of stardom, and has loaded OWN's many reality shows with celebrities. Right now there's Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which follows the making of the current, final season of her regular talk show. Coming in the next months, shows in which we watch famous people who have crashed emotionally, like Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain, try to like themselves again. Honestly, even Oprah can't convince me I want to see Ryan and Tatum O'Neal try to repair their train-wreck of a father-daughter relationship; I wonder how she convinced herself.
But along with this fluffernutter of a schedule comes a real commitment to serious non-fiction shows and documentary films. OWN's best current series is Oprah Presents Master Class, in which accomplished people talk about who they are and how they got there. The lineup is eclectic enough to include Sidney Poitier and Simon Cowell, and on this weekend's first episodes, Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer.