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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2008

Pathos on parade 'Oprah's Big Give' may help others, but it's manipulative

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

It's better to give than to receive, right?

Well, then it must be even better to give when there are several million people watching. And better still to realize that if you give enough - of somebody else's money, of course - you yourself might just wind up on the receiving end of a nice, big pot of gold.

That may be a cynical way of looking at the new feel-good reality TV show, Oprah's Big Give, which premieres at 9 p.m. tomorrow on ABC, but the program seems so baldly manipulative and phony that it's hard to characterize it any other way.

The premise of the show, which is presided over by the queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, is fairly simple. Ten contestants are challenged to raise money, then give it away to needy individuals or families. At the end of eight one-hour episodes, the one who has given away the most money - and done it with the most style, apparently - will be the winner.

And what does he or she win? Simply the deep sense of satisfaction that comes with helping the less fortunate, that's what.

Nah, just kidding. What kind of reality show would that be? The winner will get $1 million from Oprah. But sshhh!! Don't tell the contestants that, because they don't know!

Um, I hate to get all cynical again, but these 10 contestants were among thousands who stood in line for hours at casting calls around the country last year for the chance to leave their jobs and families for up to six weeks and be on a reality TV series. And they know that the person behind the show is a very generous billionaire entertainment mogul who's been known to shower everyone in her studio audience with appliances, cash, even new cars.

Yeah, they probably didn't expect that they were going to get anything out of the whole deal. What was I thinking?

A good example of the show's contrived nature is the phone calls that Oprah makes early on, telling the 10 lucky contestants that they've been selected (and speaking, for no apparent reason, in a series of bizarre accents). When the calls come, each contestant professes to be utterly shocked - which is odd, because it implies they didn't notice the camera crews that were standing by in their homes, offices, and in some cases, their cars, to record their reactions.

The competing do-gooders are an eclectic lot. There's a 23-year-old beauty queen and a 38-year-old author, a 31-year-old singer and a 43-year-old real estate developer, a 37-year-old relief worker and a 22-year-old "dot-com millionaire."

One of my favorites is the 39-year-old saleswoman who admits she's been a self-absorbed jerk all her life. As she's closing in on 40 (which she evidently thinks is time for a midlife crisis), she

contemplates her cosmic choices: "You can either get a boob job, get Botox, or truly turn your life around to really give instead of take."

In the first episode, Oprah gathers the contestants in an airplane hangar in Los Angeles and lays down the ground rules. They'll be judged by four criteria, she says: creativity, leadership, presentation, and, of course, the amount of loot they manage to raise. Each week, someone who comes up short in one or more of those categories will be booted off the show.

In a dramatic, "Gentlemen-start-your-engines" type of send-off, Oprah gives the troops her final benediction: "You either give big or go home!"

The 10 contestants are initially paired up, and each team is given $2,500 in seed money and the name of a person in need. It's up to them to locate their "targets" and dream up ways to raise additional funds to help solve their problems.

Each team is dispatched in a big, black SUV, and with "The Big Give" plastered all over their vehicles, the do-gooders aren't exactly anonymous. It turns out, though, that the SUVs, not to mention the ever-present camera crews, are pretty handy tools when the contestants start shaking down strangers in restaurants, stores, churches, even a casino. After all, who wants to look like a heartless cheapskate while the cameras are rolling?

The recipients of the show's largesse in the premiere episode include a widowed mother of two whose husband was gunned down just weeks earlier; a single mother and domestic violence victim who finds herself homeless; the mother of a child with Down syndrome who's trying to start a recreation program for special-needs kids; a med-school student from the ghetto who owes more than $200,000 in school loans, and a wounded Iraq War vet who needs civilian housing for his family.

As expected, the teams turn out to have widely varying skills when it comes to personal interaction, original thinking, common sense, public speaking, and even following directions. One bickering team manages to get lost for seven hours while looking for Camp Pendleton. (I'm not sure of the exact size of the giant military base, but I'd guess if you're in Southern California it would be pretty hard to miss.)

With Oprah's show-biz connections, it's no surprise that celebrities are part of the show, too. In the premiere episode, Jamie Foxx coughs up a big donation to help one of the "unfortunates." In future installments, we're promised appearances by actors John Travolta, Jennifer Aniston, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, former tennis star Andre Agassi, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk, and race-car driver Danica Patrick.

No word yet on whether they'll bring their checkbooks with them.

It's no accident that Oprah's Big Give is scheduled immediately following another feel-good reality show on ABC, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which families with hard-luck stories get free homes

built for them. That gives ABC a nice block of warm-and-fuzzy programming for the night. (Too bad it's followed by another new series, Here Come the Newlyweds, which is as silly as it sounds.)

But the competitive aspect of Big Give puts it more squarely in a different category of "reality" shows, like The Amazing Race, whose contestants dash madly around the world completing their assignments, and The Apprentice, where teams and individuals are judged on their performance in a number of business-related areas.

I'm not sure I can pinpoint my disdain for Big Give. I don't have a huge problem with Oprah or ABC trying to do good while doing well in the ratings - which they probably will. And I don't presume to question the sincerity of the contestants, even though their motives probably aren't entirely what the show's producers want us to believe.

It's nice to see average people helping strangers on a reality program - that's certainly a lot more uplifting and righteous than anything ever done by the scheming wretches on Survivor or the warbling prima donnas on American Idol - but there remains something basically dishonest about a show that turns charity into a competition and a spectator sport, then tries to tug at viewers' heartstrings by setting the whole charade to a mushy, maudlin soundtrack.

Why couldn't they have just called the series Touched by an Oprah?



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