The Queen of TV explores faith and religion in this seven-night event.
Can the word "Oprah" be an adjective?
Because Belief is a very Oprah production. Lavishly shot and spanning the globe, this seven part series explores faith, devotion, spirituality and religion all through Oprah Winfrey's unique live-your-best-life lens. Oprah is a brand and this television event is exceedingly on brand. After viewing, I almost expected to be swaddled in a luxurious cashmere throw and gifted with one of her favorite things (fragrant bath salts? expensive hand lotion?).
While Winfrey never speaks directly about her own belief system, she starts off each hour by telling viewers, "My confidence comes from knowing that there is a force, a power greater than myself that I am a part of, and is also a part of me." According to Winfrey, you gotta have faith.
Winfrey narrates the production taking viewers from Alabama to India to Hungary and Australia — and that's just in the premiere episode. The series explores Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism among other religions, presenting them all respectfully and without bias. From the show's perspective, there is beauty and grace inherent in every religion and Belief strips away any pre-conceived notions one might have about faiths different from our own.
Each episode focuses on a certain theme — the premiere is about those who seek faith. Cha Cha, a young woman who was raped, looks to God to "take what's broken and make it beautiful again." She attends a retreat known as The Ramp which brings her peace. Winfrey and her crew have amazing access, giving viewers an intimate look at religious events throughout the world. Seventy million people attend the Kumbh Mela in India. "The largest gathering of people in the history of the world," Winfrey says in her distinct way. In the South Pacific, a 9-year-old boy jumps off a wooden tower to prove his manhood and bring a fruitful harvest to his community. In Mexico, thousands of people ride on horseback to pay homage to the 65-foot-tall statue of Cristo Rey.
With three to four stories per hourlong episode, often the people and places featured feel more like vignettes from Winfrey's former talk show; the series doesn't dive deep. In "Acts of Faith" airing on Tuesday night, a mother goes to meet with the man who shot and killed her son. The mother's grief is palpable, as is the killer's remorse. But their meeting and interviews — like everything else in the series — are swathed in the trademark Winfrey way with sweeping music and warm camera lighting. Everything is carefully edited down to the last tear. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but does take away from the inherent grittiness of the subject matter.
In "Love's Story," the second episode, we meet Ian and Larissa Murphy, a young couple who had only been dating ten months when Ian was in a car accident and suffered severe brain damage. Larissa did not waiver in her devotion and the two eventually married. Larissa says she said to God, "If this is not what my future is to be, just take away this love." Her love for her husband is admirable and inspiring but Larissa comes across as almost saint-like. "I need Ian just as much as he needs me," she says. Her story would have been more compelling had the show taken a deeper look into Larissa's life and her day-to-day life. Does she have moments of doubt? Did she ever think of leaving Ian? Is she ever resentful? These are the tough questions Belief doesn't seem that interested in asking.
Former professional skateboarder Jordan Richter travels to The Hajj in Saudi Arabia to become a "better father and a better man." Both of Richter's parents were addicts and he still struggles with the fact that they prioritized drugs over their only child. "What Jordan needs is love," Winfrey tells us. But again Richter's story doesn't get to the heart of how traveling to The Hajj and his faith has saved him.
In the episodes available for review, the series only briefly touches on all the violent acts that have been committed in the name of God or how religion can divide as much as unite people. Faith is a mysterious thing most people can't explain. And while Belief explores many religions and their devotees, it never truly answers the question "Why do we believe?"