'The Rosie Show' Is Ramshackle -- And Should Stay That Way

The Rosie Show - TV Still: Rosie Fued - H - 2011
George Burns/OWN

The thing to know about Rosie O’Donnell is that she gets it. She’s done a standard talk show – her own, which ran for years. She’s done The View a show calculated in so many ways. O’Donnell knows the formula at work in these kinds of shows. So when she signed on with Oprah to get back in the game with her own show on Oprah’s OWN, there must have been a part of her that knew she could do something vastly different, perhaps even fresher.

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After tonight’s debut of The Rosie Show, I can only hope she doesn’t let anyone tamper with it. Because it’s a little crazy. The Rosie Show is, in fact, something of an oddity in that it looks haphazard and thrown together (though it’s not, despite being live on the East Coast). It looks – and in the tightly packaged world of talk shows, this is a crime – like a lot of fun.

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In fact, the best compliment that The Rosie Show can be given is that it looks impromptu and unpredictable, like they had a rule book and burned it about 15 minutes before the start of the show.

That spirit needs to stick. Because if it does, then Rosie has ever-so-slyly brought impromptu silliness back to talk-show television. You know, The Ellen DeGeneres Show has its own way of creating a good time, but it always feels just a little too forced, like there’s a sheen about it that’s not spontaneous or natural. At least on the debut of The Rosie Show, there was a runaway train element. You can’t rehearse that or map it out in a meeting room.

Which made it interesting to watch.

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For starters, the set doesn’t look like something that went through an architectural planning commission or will have its photos sent to the press as a kind of sidebar story of its own. It looks like they found a big warehouse on the Harpo property, put in some seats and erected an enormous curtain divider, which could be hiding that part of the property where Oprah keeps her cash in giant drums.

Then someone frantically said, “Get some soft chairs up here!” and, boom, the show was operational.

Rosie walked out to do a stand-up bit, holding a microphone instead of standing stiffly on her mark to deliver a monologue. “I’ve done stand up with a mic since I was 16. I’m 49,” she said by way of explaining that she demanded the microphone. Immediately this sets her apart, it relaxes her and it feels very impromptu. Why? Because in typical Rosie fashion, she riffs and rambles, rather than partaking in the set-up/punch line waltz of predictability.

Her stand up bit was mostly about starting over in Chicago, how the prep work has been, plus a nice riff (and great impression) of Penny Marshall calling her at 2:45 a.m.

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Rosie has a band, fronted by Katreese Barnes, the former associate music director of Saturday Night Live and someone who shares Rosie’s sense of goofy.

Before sitting down to interview her “dream guest,” Russell Brand, Rosie took questions from the audience. It was like a throwback to Donahue without all the sleaze. Again, a little sloppy and loose – a good reminder that whatever might happen is fine by her. If it goes wrong, they’ll do another show tomorrow.

A quickie Q and A is a lot more risky than you might imagine. They are inherently unpolished and unpredictable. One person said meeting Rosie was on his bucket list. She invited him on stage, kissed him, they had a quick chat about “why me?” (he said she just made him feel good whenever he watched her). “If I wasn’t a lesbian I’d marry you,” she said.

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Then into a song and dance number that ended with confetti (because, it seems, Rosie thinks shooting confetti in the air is fun, which research proves to be true). By the time that Brand came out and they had a chat that was all over the map about spirituality, addiction, shagging and celebrity, it was unclear what kind of show Rosie wanted.

In my book, that’s a good thing. Do a variety show masquerading as a talk show with – wait for it – a short game show with audience members on stage, to boot. No doubt some people are going to say Rosie is all over the map here and her debut stumbled in trying to find its niche. If so, they’ll get one thing right – she is all over the map and that’s precisely what’s refreshing about her. What the world needs now is not another over-stylized, super-slick talk show.

I don’t think Rosie stumbled at all in this first show. I think she was herself. I think the looseness is an asset. And if anyone tinkers with that, they’ll be making a huge mistake. The more that The Rosie Show seems to be made up on the fly, the better it’s going to be. Because you don’t know what you’ll get, where it may go and what will happen. If people want to sit on the couch and watch a cookie-cutter talk show, God knows they’ve got options.

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 “I think the show’s been fun but we’re missing only one thing,” Rosie said at the end, pausing for effect. And then Oprah walked out. And they shot off some more confetti and waved goodbye.

Everything on OWN so far looks pretty slick (and much of the early stuff was pre-packaged). But watching television is often a nomadic adventure of stumbling through channels. The Rosie Show looks like something just randomly intriguing enough to stop and watch.

That’s a quality nobody should tinker with.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com.

Twitter: @BastardMachine.