Joanna Weiss

Calling on Power Oprah

Winfrey wants to be a guru, but she’s better as a conscience

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 2, 2011

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DAMN YOU, Oprah Winfrey, for making me cry. Again.

I had popped in a sample DVD of “Kidnapped by the Kids,’’ a new reality series that will air this spring on the Oprah Winfrey Network. As a fable of bourgeois self-improvement, it was hardly ground-breaking; workaholic dad is forced to give up his BlackBerry and spend time with his family, during which he learns important life lessons and changes his ways forever. But it was sprinkled with Oprah dust, and therefore with emotion. When the kids ambushed Dad in the airport to tell him they were sad about his business trips, he reached for a box of tissues, and so did I.

This is what Oprah can do, and what she will apparently attempt with every aspect of OWN, as her new network will be called. The name works, since Oprah has amassed the money, power, and sense of purpose to own just about anything she wants. OWN premiered yesterday, replacing Discovery Health. That change alone was an improvement, since the world does not need more stories of near-disaster in the delivery room or of women who were pregnant without knowing it.

But whether OWN will give us the side of Oprah we need is an open question. Because there are two Oprahs: the emotional, empathetic one who will share somebody’s story of triumph over tragedy, weep with you, and possibly give you a new car; and Power Oprah, filled with resolve and glorious indignation, who can anoint a president, snub a foe, expose the wretched wrongness of the wrong.

Judged from a few hours’ worth of sample fare, OWN is the work of Oprah A: Soft-focus tales of people becoming the best possible versions of themselves, with the goal of encouraging viewers to become the best possible versions of themselves. “Enough Already! With Peter Walsh’’ sends a de-cluttering guru into the homes of hoarders, where he browbeats them into cleaning up and also makes them cry. “Oprah Presents Master Class’’ gives us a famous person’s life story, with Oprah popping in periodically to make extra-sure we draw the right conclusions.

At best, it’s inspirational and affecting, brain candy for people affluent enough to worry about self-actualization. Oprah believes that people are good, and if she wants to turn our TVs into vehicles for self-help, that’s certainly her right. It was easy to be cynical about her book club, too, but she got people to read.

And yet something feels missing from OWN — a sense of purpose sufficient to justify the ambition. After all, there’s already plenty of inspirational fare on TV. If you want personal betterment, you can tune into “Intervention’’ or watch Tim Gunn rifle through someone’s closet. Empathy is easy. Dr. Phil can be replaced.

What Oprah does better than anyone is to snap into action when people behave badly. Last year, she zapped Rielle Hunter with enough skeptical glares to channel a nation’s anger. She wants to be a guru, but she’s better, and more vital, as a conscience.

So the show we really need is something along the lines of “Oprah Attacks,’’ in which she could deliver virtuosic dressing-downs like the one she gave in 2006 to fallen memoirist James Frey. In that day’s show, she was a portrait of controlled rage, directed both at Frey and the publishing industry. It effectively killed the market for sensationalist memoirs. It chastened powerful people, improved the world a little bit. And it was great TV.

Imagine what Oprah could do to people who committed greater wrongs. What if she could dress down Tiger Woods? Tony Hayward? Jesse James? The senators who killed the Dream Act? TV news sometimes tries outrage, but it often comes across as false or forced. Jon Stewart can help get a bill passed, but he can’t bear the burden alone.

Oprah has the power, and a TV network now. She can already make me cry, and probably you, too. Now she should use her formidable Oprahness to make some other people cry. People who deserve it. The rest of us would surely watch.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at