The queasy goodness of Oprah's Big Give.

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Feb. 29 2008 11:44 AM

Oprah's Big Give

The talk-show host casts her lavender wand over reality TV.

Oprah's Big Give. Click image to expand.
Oprah's Big Give

You can think of Oprah's Big Give (ABC, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) as a kind of Apprentice for philanthropists or as America's Next Top Altruist. Winfrey's successful attempt to civilize the wilds of reality TV finds 10 do-gooders vying to see who can do best at lending a hand to people down on their luck. Its first installment begins with Oprah speaking of a "coast-to-coast search" that her minions conducted to locate contestants worthy of the show. This inspired the hope that, a la American Idol, we might witness the amusingly disastrous auditions of people un worthy of the show, people who prove very bad at charity, people who give wooden nickels to orphans or crack to crackheads, or people who declare an aptitude for graft. No such luck.

All 10 of the aspirants are pleasant and competent, and all come with back stories lightly sketched in, the better for the audience to identify with and/or admire them. Kim, the childless ad saleswoman, feels, at age 39, a need to shakes thing up and proclaims that her endeavor with Oprah is a worthy alternative to augmenting her breasts. Embodied in Cameron, the 22-year-old Internet millionaire, is the idea that money does not buy happiness. Carlana is a one-time cheerleader who became a paraplegic after being struck by a drunken driver, and Brandi is a former pageant queen—Miss Arizona—so I guess she's supposed to provide an object lesson in noblesse oblige.

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Oprah has four minutes of screen time, tops, in the first episode. She's a busy lady, of course, but is it necessary for her to underscore this circumstance by staging her initial rendezvous with the cast members in an airplane hangar? A G5 sits sleekly at Oprah's back, ready to whisk her off to other brand extensions.

The folks on the receiving end of the good works this Sunday night seem to have been screened as carefully as the contestants, and they include a homeless single mother, a recently widowed single mother, and a jobless combat veteran. Furthermore, two of them—a woman who runs a recreation program for kids with Down syndrome and a med student eager to aid kids with physical deformities—are do-gooders themselves. To help them, the contestants mostly ask other people for money. So we're sometimes watching people give to people who give to people who give. It's trickle-down generosity, as befits the show's commitment to community building.

The projects judged most successful by a panel of midlist celebrities—the Naked Chef, the Chiefs' tight end, Chris Rock's wife—are those that involve the community. For instance, two contestants team up to throw a block party for the widow where it's announced that money has been collected to help her pay off her mortgage and that a scholarship fund has been established to put her two daughters through parochial school. Then the kids are told to write notes to their late father and affix these to balloons that will, it is promised, go "all the way to heaven." That must have been a fine snack for some sea turtle. As for inculcating the children with a belief in the Almighty, there's always the chance that a decade of Catholic school will infuse them with the proper skepticism to reject all that.

Despite this show's frequent lack of a physical Oprah, it exists shrouded in the lavender mists of Oprah-ness. Big Give has a determined poignancy about it but no traces of the maudlin. The recipients of the charity often mist up when discussing their troubles, but their tears only flow in joy and gratitude. Yes, sometimes these people appear in sepia-tinted tableaux, but such moments are so brief as to approach the subliminal. Yes, the soundtrack goes in for many inspirational power ballads and much dribbling of a piano, but it holds outright schmaltz at arm's length. Obviously, there is none of the bitchery and back stabbing that we have come to demand from reality shows. At most, a judge might refer to an idea as "half-baked," and only after taking care to acknowledge the good intentions behind it. At worst, one contestant might express moderate frustration with another with a heavy sigh. In all, Oprah's Big Give is a triumph of virtue, which leaves only the question of who would want to watch it. Writing a check to UNICEF achieves the same emotional effect in a fraction of the time. Is vicarious uplift enough to rivet an audience used to seeing Desperate Housewives in this time slot? Be serious: Who thinks that good taste is a good time?

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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