Finding Sarah: From Royalty To The Real World debuts tonight on OWN at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The timing is just right for a show that takes an intensely personal look at the life of a onetime member of the British royal family. The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, has been an inescapable part of the tabloid landscape in recent decades thanks to public weight struggles, a divorce from her prince and last year's culminating scandal where she was caught accepting money in exchange for access to her ex-husband. Now, a year later, America's appetite for royals is bigger than ever, thanks to the eye-popping wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, which has suddenly landed even her younger sister Pippa in the pages of Us Weekly.
Ferguson is on the other side of that experience from the Middletons, having been ostracized by the royal family and left nearly broke at the age of 51. With the help of Oprah's newish network, the sad-eyed redhead has set out to candidly examine her public missteps over the years and seek greater understanding and happiness with the help of Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, and an assortment of Oprah-endorsed life coach-types.
Finding Sarah does seem aptly named, considering the six-part series is set-up as a journey and discovery where Ferguson opens up about her childhood, life as a royal, and the embarrassment of public scandal. Based on the first episode, it was apparent she's a ways from understanding exactly why her life is in ruins other than the fact that she has a pattern of self-sabotage.
The feel of the show is less realty TV and more documentary, given the relatively slow pacing and cinematic landscape shots that work their way in. At times, it can all be a bit grueling, particularly when Ferguson is blankly staring back at, say, Dr. Phil or Orman, unable to respond to their digging questions. But, as Orman notes at the end of her visit with to the English countryside where Ferguson now lives (in a stately home her ex-husband has allowed her to live in for free), "she's royalty but she's so vulnerable… so lost."
Indeed, it's Ferguson's willingness to be bluntly honest about her life that drives the show, even in moments when she's frustratingly unable to articulate her feelings. It's also clear that there are reasons Dr. Phil and Suze Orman have built empires out of self-help. In their sit-downs with Ferguson, viewers watch them guide her through questions that immediately have her identifying how her mother's abandonment and death (by decapitation in a car accident) laid out of path of self-loathing that's haunted her throughout her life.
It's probably fair to say that those who don't care much for the world of self-help and therapy will find the show undoubtedly boring and self-involved. In truth, it does paint Ferguson as a supremely privileged woman who has squandered much of her good fortune throughout the years in sometimes embarrassing ways. It can be difficult to feel large amounts of pity for a woman who lived inside a world of such insane, over-the-top wealth and still lives quite comfortably, thanks to her ex-husband. At the same time, the show portrays a woman who seems quite astonished at her own, strange life and who straddles the line between semi-normalcy and insulated detachment from the rest of the world.
She becomes particularly endearing in scenes that show her as a middle-aged woman looking at the oddity of her own life. Take, for example, when she's eating a bag of sweets on a drive through central London, pointing out which room in Buckingham Palace she used to live in and saying, "There's my old house." She's also made a point to physically present herself in flaws-and-all mode, appearing without makeup numerous times on-camera.
Given the fact she tells Dr. Phil that she doesn't understand why last year's tabloid scandal was a morally comprised situation to enter into, it looks like Ferguson is in need of some serious direction and discovery. It's also questionable whether a crew of reality cameras and branded TV personalities can really open up a path to greater happiness and healing. But Ferguson is offering herself up, hoping to inspire others who are lost after opportunities and privilege have dried up. So long as she keeps her perspective firmly planted more in the real world than the inside of a palace, there's a good chance this journey will prove interesting.