Oprah's Big Give



9-10 p.m. Sunday, March 2

The first irony (but certainly not the last) that strikes one about the eight-week Oprah Winfrey infomercial "Oprah's Big Give" is that there is nary a single genuine giving moment to be found during the opening hour.

It is instead a profoundly hyperkinetic and unwieldy adventure in product placement, in Oprah-as-Messiah hype and, ultimately, in what's so utterly fake and insidious about "reality" television itself.

Because the ABC series operates under the high-minded guise of bringing life rescue and joy to people in need, it's actually even more disturbing than those shows claiming no similarly socially redeeming purpose.

While the recipients of this largesse no doubt truly benefit in a format that's one part "Queen for a Day" and one part "The Amazing Race," the question must be asked early on: Is it worth being exploited as a quasi-pathetic charity case on national television, replete with on-cue manipulative sappy music and photo ops choreographed by editors seemingly in the throes of epileptic seizure, to gain that helping hand?

Yes, I'm trashing a program with a philanthropic core that, on the surface, uses an unscripted gambit to assist those who most require it. How evil am I? Ah, but wait, for my reasons are almost too numerous to adequately convey in a single review. It's clear that Oprah saw the feel-good reality movement that sprouted a few years back around "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and the like and wanted a little piece of that for herself. As a woman who earns hundreds of millions of dollars annually and enjoys casting herself as someone who's all about giving back, she saw "Big Give" as a natural place to go. The idea: Who can give the most to the most people while scampering across the country? Except that we're not talking about such billionaires as Mark Cuban or Richard Branson but ordinary Joes and Janes who are, in fact, actually giving nothing of their own but -- one might argue -- indeed snatching the personal glory that comes with floating in Oprah's rarefied orbit.

But let's go back to the beginning of a show that commits the egregious sin of just plain being sloppy and bad. As "Big Give" opens, we are treated to the reactions of the 10 contestants to receiving the phone call from Oprah telling them they've made it. It begs the question: Why is there a camera there to record it? Do these people just happen to be followed by a crew every waking moment of their lives? It means of course that this is reenactment, not authentic, and it serves as an apt setter of the bogus tone.

The competitors, chosen from amongst "thousands" of hopefuls, include an Iraq War vet, a dot-com millionaire, a paraplegic author, a pre-med student, a model-turned-disaster relief worker, a real estate developer, a marketing specialist and a singer-actress. My favorite is the woman who admits it was either practice benevolence or get Botox injections. Yeah, you know, six of one.

The idea here is that, armed simply with a photo, directions and $2,500 in cash, these selfless soldiers (traveling in pairs) must change the lives of their needy assigned human/family in five days through fundraising, corporate sponsorship or just plain love (which in this case is another synonym for cold hard cash).

The "Biggest Giver" will wind up with $1 million, though Oprah insists "that's a secret!" Oh really? And so these people are taking weeks out of their busy lives just to help their fellow man? Call me an insufferable cynic, but I think there's got to be slightly more to it, unless the fat checks that pour in from companies in the premiere have nothing whatsoever to do with Oprah's involvement. It's just one great big giving world out there! C'mon, readers, group hug! Everybody join in! (Yes, you too, Mr. Weinstein.)

What makes "Oprah's Big Give" especially unwatchable is a vertigo-inducing pace that would need to slow way down simply to qualify as quick-cut. Few shots last more than 3.4 seconds -- seriously, I timed it -- and the dizzying speed with which it races by makes it virtually impossible to get to know any of these people on anything more than a surface level. Which is probably as it should be.

Shallow as a birdbath, the program would appear to exist less as a true philanthropic exercise than yet another self-aggrandizing vehicle in Oprah's divine quest to become synonymous with all that is virtuous and good on Earth. We might well refer to this as "Touched By a Talk Show Host." But would it have killed the woman to have her disciples give a little something to the Writers Guild Fund? Oh wait, that's right, this is reality TV. Never mind.

Harpo Prods. and ABC
Executive producers: Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Rakieten, Harriet Seitler, Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri
Senior supervising producer: Jonathan Sinclair
Supervising producers: Shannon McGinn, Fred Pichel
Senior producers: Barry Hennessey, Maren Patterson
Producers: Wendy Hinton, Paul Boese, Tess Gamboa
Directors of photography: Per Larsson, Keith Walker
Costume designer: Moksha McPherrin
Music: Vaughn Johnson
Casting: Joy Pierce
Judges: Jamie Oliver, Tony Gonzalez, Malaak Compton-Rock
Host: Nate Berkus