LAST EDITED ON 03-03-08 AT 08:04 AM (EST)
It's got problems.
Bear with me: this is going to ramble.
First: the message. (Other than 'Let's all nominate Oprah for sainthood!') It's one thing to say 'Sure, anyone can make a real difference. Let me show you.' But there's another side to that, and it's 'Anyone can make a real difference when they call a major corporation and say they're with an Oprah-created show: they need some help.' Anyone can make a real difference when there's cameras filming and the people who give to a good cause also get their faces on television. Anyone can make a difference when they have 'Big Give' painted on their cars (and the roof of their HQ -- not), which lets everyone they see know just who they're working for.
The rest of us, who don't have a reality show sponsoring and watching our efforts, are pretty much screwed.
To make that much of a difference -- to raise that kind of cash, especially from corporate sponsors -- without the presence of the cameras is just about Mission Impossible. Could it be done? Yes, but the odds of managing it are about a hundredth of theirs, and the drop-off can largely be placed on the lack of media coverage. You and I can't invoke the lenses at will. They can. It changes the way things work. It even alters how the efforts come out on the community end, whether people are willing to admit it or not (although it's a little easier to work without the show there). The cameras change everything.
Second... Look, we all know I generally dislike Oprah, occasionally going up to 'hate' and sometimes venturing into the rarefied territory of 'If she died in front of me, my first reaction would be applause'. And this is partially because she has a lot of power and, while having some charitable causes (which tend to backfire), she generally uses it to subtle remind people of just how much she could do while actually managing a grand total of very little. 'I'm Oprah and you're not.' Fine. I don't want to be you. I don't want to wind up doing the stupid accents you demonstrated on the phone the other night in those very blatant 'I can't be a contestant: there's some other reason for those cameras to be around' shots.
But at the same time, I acknowledge a basic fact of her life and those at similar levels of wealth: you can't help everyone. No single individual has that much money. Put enough lives right without stopping and you'll wind up in the gutter, hoping someone cares enough to save yours. You always have to pick and choose, which is why charities see so much of the donations. If last night displayed anything, it's that saving individuals gets expensive fast.
-- this is still both a relentless promotional campaign for Oprah's supposed sainthood (which will be a theme of the series no matter what anyone does to stop it) and exploitation on the same level her show operates on. Here's someone else's sob story: now let me get some ratings out of it! And what do ratings equal? Cash! So does just selling the show to begin with: I guarantee you ABC didn't get this for free. This show is operating at a profit. And where does that money go? We don't know -- but I could place a solid bet that everything over expenses doesn't go right back.
We can also look at the people being helped (and simultaneously exploited). Yes, they need it. Yes, they're worthy, by the show's definition. There are other people who need just as much help who may not be as camera-loved, but we're not going to think about that right now, because this group was desperate enough to go begging for assistance, they do deserve it, and they got it. The show's priority sorting can come in later: I'm not going to bash anyone who made it on just because they showed up. They are genuinely deserving of assistance and it's not their fault they made the cut.
Oprah can't single-handedly help everyone, media coverage or no, not if she did it herself. I acknowledge that. But these are the people she has chosen to assist. (I'm still not faulting the cherry-picking just yet.) Which brings up the question of 'What happens when the contestants fail?' And a total failure is likely to happen, cameras or not: they improve the odds, not guarantee them. Does the show say 'Well, we tried, but at least your story got on the air. You're on your own from here.' Do they step in and say 'There's a minimum help level just in case they blow it: have a complimentary t-shirt?' Or do they fix the problem as best they can? It's a very real question, and it's one we may never get an answer to.
(On another note entirely, I can virtually guarantee at least one robbery stemming from this series. 'Hey, look -- those people just got a lot of money and we know where they live! Let's go take some of it!')
And what happens to all the people who asked for help and weren't quite camera-worthy enough to make the cut? Is there an adopt-a-cause page at the show's site? Or do we just forget about them because their stories weren't quite good enough? After all, only people who are good enough to appear on television are truly deserving, right?
Okay... the show itself.
You could make a serious argument that it's actually too short. Each team (and next week may see three teams of three) had five days to work on their cause, with five people to help. After all the contestants were introduced, the causes were introduced, and we watched some 'we're lost' footage, there was practically no time to see any of the fundraising process. The overall image presented was 'We picked up some phones, and then someone waved a magic wand'. From the most successful to the least helpful results, the journey remained invisible -- which makes the show a very poor primer on what people should be doing in their own efforts. Two hours would have served them better, and it'll still help when we lose the introductory contestant footage next week. As is, we have very little idea what's actually going on.
At least for this first episode, the contestants seemed to be extremely spread out. This makes things hard for the host, who may just show up at the end and review -- for the judges, where the only place we may see all three in one shot is at the end -- and for the dubious competition angle of the give, because no team has any idea what the others are doing: no communication, no spying, no nothing. This could change in future episodes -- but I have my doubts. As it currently stands, everyone works in the dark, without even the momentary intersection at tasks that the Race offers. It's like running to the finish mat and not having Phil tell you what place you came in until the entire contestant pool is gathered at the Pit Stop dinner.
We barely met anyone. Some of them certainly seem like decent people, but exploring their personalities is a trick the editing department hasn't learned yet -- and you could really argue they didn't have the time to learn it, not with everything else that had to be shown. (I have a sneaking suspicion this is a monoreligious cast, but that's neither here nor there just yet.) But beyond the few words they said about themselves, we didn't see enough screen time with the players being themselves to form any rough ideas of who they were -- not even on the instant flashpoint monotheme level that so many other shows try to use. And with so many people to help and only an hour of screen time to do it in, this may not have time to change very much.
Do you understand the judging criteria? Does anyone? (If you understand how the judges were working based on that mini-glimpse, congratulations.) Isn't it interesting that one of the focus columns for the give seems to be spectacle? Sure, you can help someone quietly and low-key, not call attention to their plight and do your best not to embarrass them in any way because just asking for help on national television can be hard enough -- but you lose points. This show will in no way spotlight or encourage the silent saints, those who work behind the scenes with no thought of reward. Give big or go home? Giving big in the displayed instances requires the presence of cameras. We don't have them.
And Oprah is not a saint. She doesn't even play one on television.
At least, not very well.