Lately, my evenings have been filled with DVR sessions of the Oprah Winfrey Network, and more specifically, with Season 25: Behind the Scenes, the reality program chronicling the backstage business of the mogul's final season of her syndicated talk show. I'm far from being an Oprah drone, but that is exactly what makes watching the show so pleasurably voyeuristic.
From the perspective of an objective outsider, the program stirs up feelings of both fascination and shameful amusement. Like everything else she has ever produced, the media maven most likely directed this show at a certain demographic, namely a devoted legion of women who, ironically because of a certain blind devotion, are probably the least tickled by the idiosyncrasies of Season 25.
Oprah claims the idea for Season 25: Behind the Scenes was her own; and although a reality show in these times doesn't get points for originality, the sheer business acumen behind allowing cameras to follow her and her staff around in the show's last season just as she transitioned full-time to OWN is what makes the idea so impressively smart. Ultimately, could there be anyone better than the Big O to bring reality television, hybrid programs of truth and pretense, to the next level?
After all, what catapulted Oprah Winfrey to success was her innate talent at balancing both truth and pretense. There's a reason why she's long been referred to as American royalty. Like an ideal royal, she has always presented a sense of accessibility, all whilst reminding her followers that they are her subjects. We know what she's reading in bed, her struggles with weight, and what her favorite foods are, but we'll never know know her, at least not the way a Jennifer Aniston or a Tyler Perry does.
This trend has continued into Behind the Scenes, and it being on full display in the context of a reality show is what makes the program so deliciously fun. As the show winds down its run, here are some highlights and low points from recent episodes that capture the enigma that is Ms. Oprah Winfrey.
Best: Her goofiness She's goofy, but the best thing about her being goofy is her not caring if we see her being goofy. Even better? I don't think it's an act. As exhibited in an episode about her excitement over the makeover shows (episodes she couldn't stand) coming to an end, she probably really does do silly happy dances in front of her staff. She probably also flips her makeup apron over her roller-bedecked head when she's embarrassed, as she did when she talked about how abhorrent it is to use the phrase "Do you know who I am?"
Worst: C'mon now, really?! She probably has at least once in her life used or at least, thought, "Do you know who I am?." And I wouldn't even blame her. When she talks about the Hermes incident from a few years ago, it's difficult to believe that exact thought wouldn't go through her head. If I were Oprah, I'd remind people of it every day. Then I'd tell someone to get me a scone.
Best: Her employees are scared shitless of her They pretend not to be. And it is really entertaining to watch. Imagine a bunch of neurotic Type-A people at the top of their professions, and their boss is Oprah Winfrey. Hahahaha! Sorry. The fear was most obvious during the "pitch-meeting" episode, which chronicled the time of year when all the producers gather at a hotel for days to pitch the boss their three best episode ideas. An idea that could have taken a hopeful producer months to configure would be dashed within a mere few seconds that it took for a shaking of the head or an abrupt no from Winfrey. On the flip side, if Oprah liked an idea, faces would light up like Ralphie on Christmas morning.
There are also the fun scenes that take place in the Harpo production offices. Watching a producer go from the relaxed environs and safety of their own office into the lion's den of the Oprah's office is like watching temperatures change. The hesitance to speak and the need to please is all there. It's a situation that in which likely many people have been once in their lives; the pleasantry; the laughing at the jokes; the pained effort to not offend. Multiply it by a million.
Worst: The toll it must take Working at Harpo seems like it must be a dream come true, but one can only imagine what a toll the long hours must take on not only the employees' individual health and stress levels, but their families as well. There's an episode dedicated on how supportive the "Harpo husbands" (as the spouses are called) are, but according to some former employees, things aren't always as chimerical as it may appear on the show. Of course there are disgruntled ex-employees at any company, but it wouldn't be surprising if working 16 hour days for a highly demanding and high-profile boss did lead to high divorce rates and unhealthy lifestyles.
Best: Tom Hanks That is all.
Worst: Julia Roberts That is all.
Best: The audience's reaction when Oprah or a celebrity walks out Worst: The hysteria It's sweet at first, but damn. Three words say it all: Favorite Things episodes.
Worst of the Worst: Tie between James Frey and Kirstie Alley episodes The James Frey follow-up, by far, is the most offensive episode. The pandering from Frey, the cowardice of the executive producer, Sheri Salata, and the dubious denial by Winfrey; it was all so wrong. For Oprah to say that she didn't know Frey was returning to the talk show in the spirit of forgiveness and redemption after his Million Little Pieces scandal is highly suspect.
Which is the case? That Salata, Oprah's long-time executive producer and a friend of Frey's, was too scared to tell Oprah the theme of the show and allowed her friend to be hung out to dry or that Oprah being too incensed with her own public humiliation to care? Are we really supposed to believe that Ms. Winfrey isn't fully aware of EVERYTHING going on with her business and show? The whole situation is questionable and one that can't be fixed with tears and a few forced hugs.
The Kirstie Alley episode, on the other hand, is the most offensive incident to an actual show guest. When Ms. Alley, who has just as famously struggled with her weight, visited to show off her newly Dancing with the Stars-slimmed-down figure, Ms. Winfrey refused to ask her about her weight in pre-show meetings, stating the audience was tired of hearing about it. Um, excuse me? Turns out Alley was devastated (not to mention disappointed due to having a product to hawk). For someone who has obsessively reported her every triumph of the bulge to her at home audience, whether we cared or not, it was a petty and hypocritical move.
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Best of the Best: Her relationship with BFF Gayle King
Gay, straight, who cares? More of this, please. Their relationship is genuine and unique, and it brings out the best moments of Oprah onscreen. Hilarity, annoyance, and comfort -- it's all there on display for us to see. Just like the cross-country driving episodes from her talk show this year, I'd take a whole season of a reality show format.
OWN hasn't exactly been doing as well as its eponymous media mogul would have liked, but it doesn't mean there aren't some gems, particularly Season 25: Behind the Scenes and Finding Sarah (tThe latter being a truly insightful and more honest reality program following the life of the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson). It's interesting to see what Oprah will do to follow Behind the Scenes once it's off the air. Clearly, people aren't quite ready to let go, yet, and it appears neither is she.
In the meantime, all I'll be left with once the show is off the air is fantasizing about what a Tom Hanks dinner party must really be like.