The ritual cleansing of a talk-show host.
Today, like a big boy, James Frey made it through Oprah without his mommy. When we last saw Frey, on Larry King Live on Jan. 11, his mother shared the hot—rather, the tepid—seat for the last few segments. Mrs. Frey beamed and smacked her hands together when Oprah Winfrey, in a superb bit of mediacraft, phoned in at the 59th minute to declare her continued support for A Million Little Pieces, a memoir which, as you may have heard, is full of crap. A fortnight later, Oprah was ready to reverse her position, to confess that her judgment had been "clouded" by the huzzahs of the Frey faithful, to apologize to her constituents, and to call Frey on the carpet. His mother would have no part in the proceedings, though Oprah occasionally wore the wounded air of Angry Black Mom, and Frey's publisher, Nan A. Talese, did a decent turn as Indulgent Auntie.
"This whole upsetting controversy has left me with a lot of questions for James Frey," Oprah teased near the top of the episode, doing the low boil of a woman betrayed. "We will talk to him after this break." And yet the hour that followed was not about James Frey. Its goal—one achieved with ruthless efficiency—was the ritual cleansing of Oprah Winfrey. To paraphrase the tattoo on Frey's left arm, it was time to throw down.
Dressed in a velvet jacket, Oprah sat Frey down on her sectional couch and posed the questions any thoughtful interviewer would about the veracity of AMLP. Frey was slightly more forthright than he had been in his self-righteous Larry King performance. Yet he still gave the impression of a kid in the principal's office, one who is resigned to the fact of his suspension but is trying to say what everyone wanted to hear in hopes of getting it shortened. Because he was in a proper venue for psychobabble, he flung some low-grade spin at the issue of his falsifications: "I think part of what happened with a number of things in the book is when you go through an experience like the one I went through, you develop different coping mechanisms, and I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was probably greater than—not probably, it was greater than I actually was." It was cute that he tried.
The sectional kept expanding—first for publisher Talese, then Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, then the New York Times'Frank Rich. They talked about Frey as if he were a troublesome puppy. After a while, there was little for him to do but sip his water and wait for the episode to end. Via videotape, Joel Stein, Stanley Crouch, and Maureen Dowd piled on, too—a full flock of pundits! Oprah showered Cohen with thanks for writing a column titled "Oprah's Grand Delusion." She had defiled herself by condoning Frey's lies and then seen the light, and op-ed wizards from coast to coast attended as she scourged herself. It was riveting television. As James Frey will tell you, everyone loves a good story of redemption.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of James Frey by Gino Domenico/AP.