Pathos on parade.
That’s how one TV industry executive summed up to me the latest trend in reality TV. Exemplified by the much-hyped ABC premiere of “Oprah’s Big Give” (Sunday at 9 p.m. EST), it’s all about feel-good philanthropy aiding the unfortunate. Like ABC’s earlier-evening hit “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and Oprah Winfrey’s own megasmash daytime talkfest/giveaway, the idea is to help worthy souls in need with funds, goods and services.
Of course, helping the unfortunate also helps TV ratings, luring viewers with melodramatically presented true-life tales of destitution, disability, natural disaster and other adversity, which are then almost magically set right by the TV do-gooders. Never mind if the recipients have trouble paying taxes later on the largesse. (Look online for more on “Extreme Makeover” tax troubles.)
That same warm-and-fuzzy-fix appeal may lie behind NBC’s weight-loss chronicle “The Biggest Loser,” ABC’s “Supernanny” and even Fox’s recent lie-detecting test, “The Moment of Truth.” Yes, it’s possible these can offer stirring stories of healthier living, better-behaved kids and more honest relationships. The “Makeover” folks get better homes, and Oprah’s big given-to recipients are lifted from low moments.
But what would the triumph mean without stressing the tragedy? These shows depend on depictions of conflict and woe - what an earlier generation called “sob stories” - to drive their dramatic arcs. The more miserable, the better. You might compare it to how old-time director Cecil B. DeMille sold biblical epics like “The Ten Commandments.” Sure, there’s God and redemption at the end, but first the audience wallows in a whole lotta sinning, rather elaborately and dotingly detailed.
Sorry to be so cynical, but pop culture has been here before. One of America’s most reliable media hits from the 1940s to the `60s was “Queen for a Day,” first on radio and then TV. In this “reality” forerunner, a studio audience listened as four contestants explained the sorry circumstances of their lives, essentially vying to tell the most pathetic tale. Then an “applause meter” measured audience response to determine which of the women was most wretched. The winner was not only given prizes but adorned with a robe and a crown while an orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance” for the new “queen” on her throne. (There’s a video taste at youtube.com/watch?v=xxXxvkK6IlQ.)
“Sure, `Queen’ was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” producer Howard Blake wrote in a magazine article quoted in Maxene Fabe’s “TV Game Shows” book. “That was why it was so successful. ... We got what we were after. Five thousand `Queens’ got what they were after. And the TV audience cried their eyes out, morbidly delighted to find there were people worse off than they were, and so they got what they were after.”
That’s not to say “Oprah’s Big Give” is vulgar and sleazy. It’s more high-minded than, if structurally similar to, the standard reality competition these days. The shot-on-location show pits 10 varied contestants with what the producer calls “great backstory” - the beauty queen who overcame scoliosis, the Army captain back from Iraq, the cheerleader made paraplegic by a drunk driver - in a fast-moving, wide-traveling game of giving to sorry souls, whom they must locate using only a picture, a name and one clue. As Oprah pal Nate Berkus hosts, the competitors are judged in their philanthropic efforts by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, footballer Tony Gonzalez and Chris Rock’s wife, Malaak Compton-Rock.
“The judges had to look at how they gave, not just what they gave,” Berkus said in a recent conference call with reporters. So, your charity is better than my charity? And why is this giving done in the form of a competition anyway?
“The reason we made it a competition is one simple reason,” said Winfrey’s producer on the show, Ellen Rakieten, in that same conference call. “Because competition, no matter what it is, can really inspire people.”
Added Berkus, “Nothing gets a fire under people like healthy competition.”
And certainly “Oprah’s Big Give” and today’s other pathos-plays are light-years advanced beyond reality TV’s sick studio game craze of 2002. That’s when ABC and Fox went head-to-head with the torture-esque titles of “The Chair” and “The Chamber,” where contestants had to answer questions while being monitored for heart rate, blood pressure and other stress indicators, and, in the Fox version, while being subjected to heat, wind, “earthquakes” and other agonies. The worse it got, the more money they made. That can also be a rule of thumb in competitions like “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” where the worse you behave or the more conniving you get, the more it seems you’re rewarded.
In “Oprah’s Big Give,” the hardships are more real-life and less contrived, but they’re also more heart-tuggingly distressed. The first would-be recipient we meet, A.J. Egan, is the widow of a man murdered in the February 2007 Home Depot shooting in Tustin, Calif. And as she lays out her tale to the “givers” come to aid her, the show lays it on thick. Sad tinkly piano music plays as Egan recounts the tragedy, and the dreams it dashed. News reports and footage of doctors rushing down hospital corridors give way to home movies of Egan’s cute blond toddlers with their daddy. Mommy cries and goes to daddy’s grave site. Tears are clearly intended to flow in home viewers, too.
Which, one could argue, doesn’t change the core fact that Oprah’s big givers are trying to do big good. “I think it was Jamie that said, we’re kind of looking for the next American hero,” said producer Rakieten, “somebody that lives next door to you that you can relate to. It was about trying to get people who haven’t done something like this before and showing how it can be done.”
Oliver said in the conference call, “To measure the show by money is completely wrong. The whole point of the show is much more intimate and sensitive and emotional and clever. If giving is about cash, that limits millions of people. But even if it’s a dollar, or your time alone, that can make a massive difference to a neighbor or someone down the street, and for me, that’s the clever bit of the show ... getting to the heart of what the problem or need was, which was not always money or a new house, not always the big things. It’s the intimate things as well.”
Yet the show feels faux intimate, dramatized with mawkish music and weepy slo-mo close-ups, neatly edited into glossy tearjerkers and, later, the on-camera judging/ eliminations of the familiar reality formula. You can watch, and feel sympathy for the real problems portrayed, and feel warmed by their being somewhat alleviated, yet still feel unsettled by their manipulation into some slick kind of strategy game. You can also wonder how much the generosity of the corporate and citizen “helpers” recruited by the contestants arose from the chance to get themselves on a network show bearing Winfrey’s name.
Pathos may make for a more positive reality TV experience than a parade of lying, backstabbing and physical torture. But the basic appeal remains pathetic. Perhaps in more ways than one.
THE BIG O
“It’s got all the elements you would want in a show - drama, excitement, fear, joy, all that,” says “Oprah’s Big Give” producer Ellen Rakieten. She told reporters in a recent conference call that her new ABC reality series is not “all goody-goody,” despite its feel-good giveaways to needy recipients. As 10 contestants compete to impress three judges with their giving spirit in challenges around the country, you’re going to get fireworks, too.
“It’s not what our mission was, but the truth of the matter is, if you put 10 very different people in a very competitive situation and give them intense deadlines, you are going to have the drama ... For those that are real true hard-core reality TV lovers, there’s some of that in there, no question about it.”
But Rakieten says the show is also for “people who want to see something they can watch with their families and not cringe.” Some contestants are veteran charity workers. Others are confessed selfish people trying to change their ways. Paired up with strangers, they must find ways to work together, even to locate the folks they’re supposed to aid.
Oprah Winfrey shows up Sunday night to kick off the proceedings, and drops in occasionally to offer encouragement or challenges alongside series host Nate Berkus and celebrity judges Jamie Oliver, Tony Gonzalez and Malaak Compton-Rock. And of course, she shows up on the last of the eight episodes to award the $1-million prize.