Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Goodbye, Oprah; Hello, James Frey

I know I’m risking my man card when I say this, but here goes:

I’m really going to miss Oprah.

(And football, too, if the lockout cancels the season. Just feel the need to mention that for balance.)

I’m not obsessed. I don’t shriek with glee when Tom Cruise walks out on stage. But I can’t deny that I have enjoyed her show. It’s the most polished show on TV, in my opinion. But it’s more than that.

My wife is a huge Oprah fan, and has been forever. She Tivo’s it and watches it at night, so for years I have often seen parts or even full episodes with her. Everyone who knows us knows she’s a big Oprah fan. I have advised certain friends of mine—and they know who they are—not to badmouth Oprah if they come to our house for a Shabbat meal. (In one instance, it came close to me walking my friend to the door before dessert.)

It’s more than that, too.

Oprah has managed to stay real by allowing her viewers to see her struggles: Her abused childhood. Her weight. Her early struggle to gain the confidence to succeed in TV. Her messages are generally universal in nature and empowering—find your inner spirit, forgiveness is empowering, believe in the power of redemption, and so forth.

But it’s more than that, too.

As I was watching the celebrity-filled United Center send-off—yes, the celebrity shows are fluffy, but you have to admit it’s cool to see the range of celebrities who came out for her farewell—it occurred to me: there is no other show which has her capacity for social impact.

As they showed people—mostly women and children, but definitely men as well—from around the globe who have been touched by this show, it became clear to me what her departure from the stage will mean.

What other show has the capacity to put someone on screen, and almost instantly raise awareness of an issue to that degree? What other host has the leverage to get major corporations to donate hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to her specific causes? Who else can effect change so quickly and dramatically?

I know there are those who can’t stand Oprah, who see her as an egomaniac. Yes, it seems silly to me that she needs to be on the cover of her magazine each month. But here’s why that doesn’t really bother me: she puts her money—and her show—where her mouth is.

When Hurricane Katrina happened, she gave $10 million of her own money toward the relief efforts. No other celebrity gave anything close to that, to my knowledge; Rosie O’Donnell even bemoaned on TV how depressing it was to be turned town by ultra-wealthy celebrities when she made calls asking for $1 million donations for Katrina relief. Oprah's Angel Network has raised tens of millions more, and galvanized millions of people to participate in the process.

And that, I think, is the legacy of her show—the profound social impact. More than the celebrities, or the screaming women receiving free gifts, is the commitment to use her platform to improve the world. To speak out against abuse. To fight hunger, spread literacy, and provide a voice to others who felt they had none. To recognize so clearly that there were viewers at home who would identify with those on stage, who struggled with the same issue, and who might just use that particular episode as a lifeline to keep them afloat.

I don’t see any other show on TV with that kind of social impact. And I’m going to miss that.

And I have no idea what my wife is going to watch now.

~ ~ ~ ~

As Oprah’s show has wound down, one specific episode really struck me.

When I heard that James Frey, the now infamous author of A Million Little Pieces, was going to be on her show again in the final weeks, I couldn’t believe it. How could she give that guy who lied in his book, and then presumably profited even more from the controversy, more publicity? I hate when people profit from bad behavior—see the financial collapse of 2008—and was upset that Oprah would give him this platform again.

(If you were absent from Earth and missed the James Frey controversy a few years ago, click here for a summary, or click here for the transcript of the January 2006 interview in which Oprah scorched Frey.)

But I watched the latest James Frey interview.

And it was riveting.

For starters, Oprah was much more low-key than she was when Frey came back to her show during the heat of the controversy in 2006. Back then, she tore into him for embarrassing her and deceiving her readers; now, sitting in a quiet hotel meeting space, with no studio guests, both Oprah and Frey were reflective on what happened. They both reflected about that famous day on her show, how the whole situation came to be, about all of it.

Interestingly enough, neither watched the show after it was first broadcast; Frey still hasn’t. (I wouldn’t, either; if there’s only pain and negativity in the rear-view mirror, take the lessons you need to get out of it and just look forward.)

He acknowledged, when asked, that he was not aware of the lion’s den he was about to walk into that day, that the producers had not told him the details in advance. Oprah then asked him essentially the same question in different ways at multiple points throughout the interview: Did he feel ambushed by the questions she asked him that day? Did he feel it was unfair? Was he upset afterward?

Every time she asked, his response always came back to this:

“Whatever happened that day, I brought on myself.”

He said it not in a diplomatic-but-quietly-I’m-upset kind of way, but in a way that suggested he really meant it. He did not communicate any feelings of anger over what happened, never once expressed displeasure with her producers for not preparing him.

So why did he come back that day, even when his attorneys advised him not to, telling him that he would expose himself to lawsuits and more?

“I came because I think I owed it to you to come,” he told Oprah. “When this was all happening, I kept saying to myself, ‘How did you arrive at this? How did you do this?’… I knew that what happened was my fault. I created that mess, I created that situation. And that if I had to come bear the responsibility of what I had done, that I should do it.”

Wow. I was stunned as I watched that. (Click here to see a clip of the interview.)

We live in an age where we teach our children, and teens in particular, to make good decisions, to take responsibility for their actions. Yet all around us we see the opposite. We see athletes who get caught cheating yet continue to lie. Politicians who get caught yet continue to deny. People who simply refuse to say, “I made a mistake,” or more importantly, “I’m sorry.”

Frey did none of that. Over and over, he simply said it was entirely his fault. He explained that shifting the book’s genre to memoir would make the story more inspiring and thus increase sales. Once the book took off and was chosen for Oprah’s book club, things had spun out of control and there was no turning back. But all of that, he said, was on him.

Oprah, for her part, also expressed regret. She acknowledged the criticism she received after that show, that people said she judged him too harshly. Now, looking back, she said what people saw that day was a lack of compassion, for which she apologized to Frey. Also impressive.

I love stories of redemption. But more than that, I love stories where people take responsibility for their behavior and try to make things right, especially if it leads to the repair of a relationship. It’s so simple, so obvious, yet so rare.

So when the show was over, I really liked James Frey. Who knows, I might even pick up a copy of A Million Little Pieces.

Ah, who am I kidding? I’d rather watch football.

Cross-Posted at

No comments:

Post a Comment