January 18, 2013 2:37pm PT by Tim Goodman
Oprah and Lance: The Era of the Mea Culpa Interview Is Dead
Let's all come out about drug use to Oprah Winfrey so we can call her Doprah and her cable channel, OWN, can make a comeback from the edge of disaster. Let's do like Lance Armstrong did during Part 1 of his "Let Me Tell You What You Already Knew" tour -- which drew 3.2 million viewers Thursday -- and Friday's Part 2, which is likely to be a much less pleasurable "Bless Me, Oprah, for I Have Sinned" moment.
Do you know what the Armstrong interview did? It didn't help him. It didn't tell anyone except the utmost of lost souls something they didn't already know. The big deal here is that people found out where OWN was on their cable or satellite package. Congratulations, Oprah, your moribund cable channel is now less moribund but not exactly primed for continued success. Unless, say, Barry Bonds wants to give this a go.
The truth is, OWN was a complete disaster until Oprah recently decided to get more involved with it. She realized that she is the brand -- the brand does not extend to other people, other shows, other things on the channel. OWN only truly works when she's on it. When Oprah does what she does. And on Thursday, she did Lance. Seriously, the only victor to emerge from that stage-managed bit of too-little-too-late banality was OWN. (If you're wondering who the big loser was, well, it's not Armstrong. It's Barbara Walters. In the era of celebrity confessionals, her battle with Oprah for the right to air someone's tears so that we can either forgive them or feel superior to them is legendary.)
See, if Armstrong could control his life any longer, which he can't, he'd have booked Walters for Part 2. He'd be the kingpin of confessors. Now he's just a dude who doped, which everybody without blinders has realized forever. But whatever ratings gains OWN got from this interview, they will be fleeting. The era of the shocking mea culpa is essentially over. People didn't just watch to see Armstrong say he lied -- though there no doubt was some sublime joy in that -- but to see how he'd spin it and how deft he would be at reinvention, which is the bottom line to saying you're sorry for heinous things you've said or done to other people.
On that level, it was a spectacular failure. Armstrong generated no sympathy precisely because he's not a sympathetic character. He is, in his own words, a bully. And the victims of his bullying (who seem to be anyone who got in his way or tried to out the innumerable lies) tuned in to see how he'd play that. Answer: poorly. Has there ever been someone less convincing -- not about lying but that in finally admitting those lies he should get a big compassionate hug from the world? Seriously, without having even seen the second part, aka "Oprah's Obvious Money Grab," it's clear that Armstrong explaining all the shit he's done would be about as effective as the fictional Walter White from Breaking Bad going on Oprah's show and looking for forgiveness. It's not happening. You fell too far down. You cannot be saved.
Between Armstrong's unemotional demeanor (not moving, not visibly contrite) and claims -- even from Oprah -- that he wasn't forthcoming as he should be, this may go down as both a spectacular failure as an apology and a spectacular waste of time. People don't need to hear you say it to believe you. The judgment is already passed. The only possible good a televised mea culpa accomplishes, other than lining the pockets of OWN and other potential outlets that would participate just a little bit, is that it allows the faintest possible chance of someone acting their way to contrition. This is a subfractional success rate, a maybe-Daniel-Day-Lewis-could-pull-it-off kind of long shot.
Armstrong didn't succeed. Is there anyone other than the most delusional acolytes who believes this man is truly and utterly gutted by the relentless damage he's done other people? Screw doping. You are not connected to reality in any necessary way if you think he didn't dope. This "Oprah Save Me" moment is all about making Armstrong more likable so he can sell stuff later. Hard to see that happening, which makes his decision even more epically ill-advised. Unless he just needed to say it, to stop the charade, to rid himself of the pain and burden of carrying around that weight.
This is probably why Bonds is watching and saying, "Nope, that avenue is closed to me." It's probably why the rest of the guilty Major League Baseball lot are not going to buy into the spectacle and ask for their chance on Oprah or with Walters. People are not buying the confessions anymore. They are no longer suckers for someone's Hail Mary of redemption. Either the world is more jaded and cynical, or someone savvy has yet to stage-manage the most believable emotional ruse ever.
But the Hugh Grant "what were you thinking?" days are long gone. Jay Leno can't help you. Babs can't help you. The truth will not set you free if you tell it on television. We are a changed culture. Which makes watching Friday night kind of pointless.