Tuesday, March 4, 2008
It's an intriguing concept -- a TV reality contest that purports to measure who can give the most, rather than who can get the most. But Oprah's Big Give is more like Oprah's Big Yawn. (And, I must add, the dusty old novel Brewster's Millions had more fun with the entertaining concept that it can be harder to get rid of money than to keep it.)
My first complaint is that the show hasn't learned any lesson from time-tested reality and transformation shows. The contestants are bland, the challenges poorly defined, and the payoffs don't have much punch.
The first week's challenge split the 10 contestants into five teams of two. They were assigned a charity case (widow, homeless mom, surgeon-in-debt), given $5,000 (though it was never clear what for) and sent off to "transform lives" in a couple days.
In between copious product placements for Oprah's "angel partners" Ford, Hilton and United Airlines, the contestants mostly just made a bunch of phone calls to line up donations. This is deadly dull TV even when the hapless C-list celebs pull this cheat on Celebrity Apprentice. (At least their little black books bring in entertaining callbacks such as porn star Jenna Jameson and an endless stream of Baldwin brothers.)
After the contestants "hard work," we trudge through the results. Payoff No. 1 is the "big reveal," when we see the various recipients get their gift: money, places to live, car, whatever. They're happy; the givers are happy – big whoop. We barely know or care any of these people.
Payoff No. 2 is watching Oprah's hand-picked judges -- a bizarre trio of NFLer Tony Gonzalez, British chef Jamie Oliver and Mrs. Chris Rock -- pick the "worst giver." Another round of make-nice. Is this a competition, or not?
But mostly what stuck in my craw was the show's emphasis on turning caring about serious issues into easy-grab, quick fixes. Sure, it's fine to spend a day on the phone and raise a few thousand dollars for a single mom to rent a home. But that's fantasy, money falling from the sky onto a poor person, a pre-selected lottery. And unfortunately, history shows that simply giving stuff doesn't necessarily turn someone's life around. And on this show, it really felt like stuff, as if "help" could only be measured by material items or things that could be summed up with a cash value.
A better and more provocative show might have spent less time on such self-congratulatory set-ups and actually challenged everybody to DO something. C'mon, Oprah has the power to make people watch anything! And maybe we all could have learned something, or been otherwise inspired to do something ourselves.
How about: Here's $5,000, a needy person and a couple months. Now use your skills and only this small sum to make a real difference.
Instead, we get chirpy people making phone calls to net some unemployed war vet six months free rent on a beyond-his-means beachfront condo. Then what?!
Just a crash course is budgeting would likely be a well-spent $100 on everybody! Or teach these people to raise their own money. Sometimes life means your situation changes and you have to learn to adapt. Another lost opportunity on this show was not involving the giftees in their own reward, introducing some team work. Instead they were just passive, lucky recipients -- touched by Oprah!
And like American Idol's self-serving "charity" episode last season, Big Give promises upcoming celebrity involvement. (Celebrities – they care SO MUCH!!! They are PERFECT IN EVERY WAY! Talent, looks, bigger-hearted than us ...)
But that preview of John Travolta beaming into the camera from the cockpit of his huge private giant jet probably did more harm than good. It reinforced that some people have incalculably more money than us, and that our culture is a capricious rich-get-richer kinda place with not much everyday love for the poor and struggling. (Travolta didn't even have the decency to downplay his obscene wealth in our presence.)
Hey Oprah -- what kind of country celebrates the guy who has a humongous airplane for a toy, while passing off this kind of specious, phony "caring" for five down-and-outers as inspirational entertainment?