Reinvention is one of the central pillars of the Oprah Winfrey brand; the idea that no matter how many unfortunate breaks life parcels out, it’s never too late to scurry in a completely new direction and to come out successful and triumphant, with a life happier and more stable than if there was no trial at all. As much of a bruising as Winfrey has taken over the past year and a half, as her Oprah Winfrey Network saw sharp declines in viewership, layoffs and upper-management churn, the network’s failure to launch almost reinforces this key component of the Oprah brand. After decades spent hosting her talk show, so massively successful it was the Death Star of daytime as much as American Idol was to primetime, now she’s faced major setbacks with her latest endeavor and it’s time to try a radical new strategy.
In the case of OWN, Winfrey’s strategy is the same one any network tries to employ when they can’t attract enough eyeballs: stop broadcasting shows people don’t want to watch, and start broadcasting shows they do. Enter Iyanla Vanzant, the motivational speaker and author whose own story of reinvention and battling back from the brink just so happens to feature Winfrey as one of its star players. Back in the late-1990s, during The Oprah Winfrey Show’s heyday, Winfrey became so enamored with Vanzant’s folksy, quippy, tough-yet-tender relationship advice that Vanzant became a bi-monthly guest host. Winfrey would take a seat in her own audience and let Vanzant run the show, with the eventual plan to groom Vanzant to take on a show of her own, as she would go on to do with Dr. Phil McGraw.
But Vanzant's ambition got ahead of the schedule, and she insisted to Winfrey that she was ready to host her own show sooner than the timeline Harpo Studios had in mind. When Winfrey and her handlers pushed back, Vanzant decided to strike out on her own. The result was The Iyanla Show, a complete botch of a daytime talk show that failed to reflect the ideas and personality of its host. It was canceled after just one season. Then Vanzant’s husband filed for divorce. She lost her daughter to cancer on a Christmas morning. She went bankrupt and was forced out of her dream home. She contemplated suicide.
Vanzant recounted all of this in a two-part interview with Winfrey in which the women hashed out their differences and presented their respective sides of the disagreement that ended their working relationship. It was part of Winfrey’s tendency towards housekeeping and exorcising old demons in the final season of her talk show, much like her decision to invite James Frey back onto the show and half-apologize for upbraiding him before a live audience. The interview with Vanzant wasn’t nearly the spectacle of Frey’s return, but it was in many ways more fascinating to watch, as two masters of new-age, afirmational rhetoric collaborated on a narrative of their spat which confirmed that both women were doing what they challenged their fans to do every day: learn from their mistakes and build on their setbacks.
Given this backstory, it was an obvious choice to offer Vanzant an opportunity to host a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. But it remains to be seen whether it’s a wise choice, because if OWN’s main strategic mistake was in trying to take the self-empowerment, live-your-best-life tone of her hour-long talk show and spread it across an entire day’s programming, Iyanla Fix My Life won’t do anything to help diversify what OWN has to offer. What the show does do is provide a window into the alternate timeline in which Vanzant waited until she had Winfrey’s blessing and backing, as Fix My Life closely resembles the Dr. Phil format of documenting dysfunctional people in their own space, then inviting them before a studio audience to iron their issues out.
Vanzant’s inaugural guests are a fractured family of women. Bernetta is a woman in her 30s who feels emotionally isolated from her mother Brenda, but connected to her maternal grandmother Corrine, who provided her with vital emotional support as she was growing up. It’s a story with genuine emotional heft on all sides. Brenda had Bernetta at a young age and struggled to keep up with the challenges of raising a child due to a cognitive condition. Now, years later, she wants the love and respect she feels a mother is due from her child, and having never formed that type of bond with her mother, Bernetta is ill-equipped to provide it. Corrine, meanwhile, feels like she’s done all the work Brenda should have been doing, and therefore deserves to have the relationship she has with Bernetta, and resents Brenda’s desire to get a return without having made an investment. It’s a small, relatable human story that would be fascinating to watch if it was told with a more earnest, documentary approach. But told this way, it feels the same way as it feels to watch Crossing Over with John Edward—manipulative and inappropriate, even if the people directly involved seem to be getting some kind of value out of it.
Vanzant flies down to Sweetwater, Miss. to intervene, sitting down with the women for a home-cooked meatloaf meal and some emotional sparring. As a moderator, Vanzant excels, asking just the right questions at the right times and reflecting their statements back to them, forcing them to really hear what they’re expressing for the first time. It seems therapeutic, even if it isn’t always riveting television. It’s when Vanzant tries to get tough that she stumbles. It’s not totally clear why McGraw manages to excel at this, but he has the same gift Winfrey has for antagonizing a guest without seeming unsympathetic or like a bully. Vanzant lacks this crucial skill, so when she bears down on the women, it feels insincere and uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that she keeps barking at them to “Call a thing a thing!”—a reasonable request for plain speak rather than rationalization that’s robbed of its impact by Vanzant’s insistence on turning it into a hooky catch phrase. No matter how much the show delves into the family’s emotional morass, it never manages to stop being about Vanzant. Iyanla Fix My Life never manages to focus on the life being fixed more than on the woman fixing it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about any of this. It was a little gross to watch for me, but at the same time, I recognize that the Grandiose Life Coach Talk Show is its own genre, such that complaining about the very nature of it is to miss the point entirely. Vanzant was well-groomed for this, even if the timeline unfolded differently than she had imagined, and she’s perfectly competent to host this type of show. (Even if she doesn’t necessarily excel in front of the live studio audience, a setting which seems too large for her laidback energy.) The bigger issue with Iyanla Fix My Life is that it just feels so dated, and the irony is that instead of filling the vacuum left behind by the end of Winfrey’s similarly themed talk show, Vanzant’s show almost feels less welcome in Winfrey’s absence. It’s as though Winfrey made the world safe for self-empowering navel-gazing, or perhaps that she was so good at it, it’s a stage that no one can convincingly command now. Whatever the case, if OWN is going to properly reinvent itself and reverse its fortunes, it’s not going to do so by populating its schedule with facsimiles of Winfrey’s talk show, and even at its best, that’s all Iyanla Fix My Life manages to be.