The Rosie Show

If you want to know the ethos behind The Rosie Show, all you have to do is watch 30 seconds near the end of tonight’s inaugural show. Rosie O’Donnell is hosting a game show called “The Ro Show”, with a doctor and a receptionist from the audience as contestants. The doctor is up 3-0 in a “first to five” competition in which each answer has the letters “RO” in it. Rather than let the doctor coast to victory, Rosie starts showing the answers to the receptionist in order to catch up. (This all happens IMMEDIATELY after Rosie chastised her for trying to take credit for her opponent’s incorrect answer. “You have to earn your points, Debbie!” she bellowed.) That act is a perfect encapsulation of both The Rosie Show and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network at large. Both entities seek to empower through encouragement, even if that encouragement is rife with condescension.

Granted, I’m not the target audience for this show. And far be it from me to upset Oprah’s Army, who might descend upon my house wielding Books of the Month. But there’s something oddly disconcerting about the ways in which lessons of empowerment were doled out in tonight’s episode. Now, to be fair: O’Donnell does “I am one of you” far better than Oprah ever could. And to say that the crowd was “adoring” is selling things short by quite a bit. But even with an initial segment that placed O’Donnell at the footlights of the theatre, there was still a separation between herself and the audience that belied the communal atmosphere she strove to create.

Backing up a bit: This is a talk show, through and through. It breaks the mold slightly more than Conan O’Brien’s return to late night did, but it felt less ambitious than, say, a typical episode of Ellen. Part of this may be the decision that makes this show stand out above others: It’s live, with just a small tape delay keeping us at home from the stage that originally made Oprah famous. Having The Rosie Show housed in Harpo Studios only emphasizes what this show isn’t: When O’Donnell sat mid-stage after the rather intimate opening in front of a red curtain, it looked like she has snuck onto the set after hours to secretly tape her own show. To say O’Donnell taking over that set is a bigger deal than Leno taking over for Johnny Carson is heresy to a non-Oprah acolyte, but far less so to someone that lives and breathes all things Winfrey.

The live aspect would feel fresh, if it also didn’t feel controlled within an inch of its life. After an opening monologue (which skewed personal rather than topical), O’Donnell opened up the floor to questions, Carol Burnett-style. What seemed like an initially bold decision turned less so when “impromptu” questions turned into extended comedic riffs. By the time Suze Orman stood up to ask a question that led to a full-on Broadway production number, spontaneity had left the building in favor of carefully scripted moments and even camera angles. No one is expecting anarchy when tuning into The Rosie Show, but the only truly animated moments came during “The Ro Game,” as people in the audience spontaneously started answering the questions.

To her credit, O’Donnell handled the semi-heckler with aplomb. And surely, as the show gets a few months under its belt, things will hopefully develop into a looser, more organic format. It’s not like O’Donnell can’t handle an hour of live television, but it’s unclear if The Rosie Show can handle the same responsibility. Jimmy Kimmel's show suffered greatly under the pressure of live broadcasts, eventually scaling back and pre-taping its segments in order to produce a more seamless product. Rather than having a natural sense of ebb and flow over the course of its 60 minutes, each segment slammed into the next. An initially long intro turned into a 30-minute Russell Brand interview chopped up into seemingly indiscriminate, arbitrary lengths. Having Brand on as the initial guest was a smart decision: Not only can he sustain interest in a live environment, but he also comes pre-packaged with a tale of self-redemption that fits into the OWN “brand,” as it were. But what the hell happens in three weeks when it’s a Real Housewife of New Jersey in that chair for a half-hour?

In the episode’s final moments, Ms. Winfrey herself came onstage to bless the show with her beatific self. The crowd went nuts, of course, but that moment helped solidify just how long her shadow is cast over The Rosie Show. Having an identifiable thread that connects the programming throughout a specific network is a great goal and one that many cable networks strive to achieve. But it would behoove both parties to have less Oprah and more Rosie in The Rosie Show. That seems like a silly thing to say, given the name of the program. But it really is Rosie’s program in name only, at this point. Hopefully this has more to do with the talk show figuring itself out versus the talk show fighting the unseen dictatorial hand behind the scenes. But only time will tell which assumption is correct.

Until then, both show and network would do well to use Peggy Albrecht as a model. Who is that? She’s the executive director of Friendly House, which houses women going through rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse. Brand visits her tonight in a pre-taped segment, one that led directly from a discussion of Amy Winehouse’s recent death. The women in Friendly House that agree to appear onscreen all come from different backgrounds, but also went through the same journey to get there. That's equally true for Albrecht, herself a former addict. The connection between Albrecht and those she oversees in Friendly House is palpable and unwittingly demonstrates just how artificial the bond is between Oprah/O’Donnell and their audience. That doesn’t mean either woman is artificial: It just means that the assumed connection between host and audience member can’t match the connections demonstrated inside Friendly House. “These women are me. I am these women,” Albrecht says. Oprah and O’Donnell preach that code. But Albrecht lives it.

Letting an audience member cheat in a game show isn’t a way to bond with them. It only serves to emphasize the distance between the two. I’d be curious to tune back in after a few weeks/months, to see if the show had solved not only the trickiness of live television but also solved the problem of faux intimacy. There are flashes throughout tonight’s hour in which the real Rosie appeared. But until the real Rosie starts appearing more frequently, the show’s goals of optimism, empowerment, and community will only be paid lip service.

Stray observations:

  • The leader of Rosie’s house band wrote The Lonely Island/Justin Timberlake’s “Dick in a Box.” Trivia!
  • Russell Brand was a very game guest, but you could tell that his rapid, complex wordplay constantly confused the hell out of the audience. The highlight of his lengthy interview: when Rosie’s 6-year old neighbor came up on stage and charmed the hell out of everyone, Brand included.
  • Worst moment of the interview came at the end, when O’Donnell actually said, “If you want to find out about him, Google him.” Or, you know, we could learn about him via questions you ask him on your damn talk show. That’s an option too, Rosie.
  • “I don’t wanna insult you, but you look like Rosie O’Donnell.”
  • “That monkey’s my mama!”
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