There are few failures in the world that spin around Oprah Winfrey. When she lends her name and support to something — whether it be a book, a magazine featuring her picture on the cover every month, a film or a talk show host — it typically enjoys phenomenal success by sole virtue of being in her magical orbit. Just ask Dr. Phil or any of a few dozen authors.
Indeed, where would Dr. Phil McGraw be today had he not been featured weekly by Winfrey on her show and then personally escorted onto his own daily program with the queen herself running interference? Answer: giving lectures in front of 75 people at the Learning Annex.
Yes, Oprah makes you and — as “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey found — she can just as easily break you, too. We could debate for hours the moral and ethical issues that arise from a single entertainment power broker wielding so much influence, though Winfrey supporters reason that she mostly uses her unprecedented clout for good.
I actually find that argument tends to fall apart every time I turn on Dr. Phil. But I digress.
Now we have a second Oprah-backed talk show creation to abide in the hyper-caffeinated Rachael Ray, with whom I would have issues based on the spelling of her first name alone. She shot from the gate (literally) on Sept. 18 with the highest ratings for any syndicated daily talk show since the debut of “Dr. Phil” in 2002.
While Ray built a sizable following with shows on the Food Network as well as a mini publishing empire that includes a dozen cookbooks and her Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine, that’s still the low minors compared to the daily syndie big leagues. But a mere week after premiering, it’s obvious the show is destined for success even though the numbers dropped later in her premiere week.
Ray is fortunate that Oprah’s audience does what it is told. If Winfrey instructs them to watch something, read something or buy something, with rare exception they obediently comply. There are few more powerful forces in this galaxy than the disciples of the Church of Oprah. It surely goes beyond mere adulation to something approaching religious fervor.
And so of course, with Oprah and her Harpo Prods. collaborating, folks were going to flock to “Rachael Ray” as the hand-picked, deliriously perky new flavor of the moment. I am not philosophically opposed to effervescence and enthusiasm, but Ray’s wall-bouncing manic energy (think untreated ADHD) can feel particularly unnerving for those who aren’t quite as ecstatic to be alive as she appears to be.
Ray is loud and frenzied and, yes, also cute and fun and spunky. She’s very pretty and generally charming. It’s easy to see why she has a legion of fans who swear by her. But Ray’s whole shtick is that everything should be done fast, preferably instantaneously.
The real problem with such upbeat and zealous forces of nature is that they invariably prove draining in anything but small doses. Television viewing is essentially a passive experience, and watching Ray for any length of time requires an almost physical commitment that can easily lead one to feel anxious. If the host doesn’t take time to breathe, it has a suffocating effect on viewers as well.
Assuming “Rachael Ray” has the long and prosperous life that seems to be in the tea leaves thanks to the fail-safe O’Winfrey Factor, it will confirm beyond any doubt the enormity of Oprah’s supreme sway. If she can help transform a champagne bottle with dimples into a megastar, there clearly is alchemy at work here that we may never understand.