Rosie O'Donnell tries jumping back to the future in her new talk show for Oprah's OWN
I spent quite a bit of time Monday night trying to puzzle out why I so disliked Rosie O'Donnell's return to the tlak show fold on Oprah Winfrey's OWN cable channel.
(UPDATE: L.A. Times has already pronounced the show a flop for drawing less than 500,000 viewers in its debut; that is, however, close to three times the viewers they averaged in that timeslot last month.)
It's not that O'Donnell's new The Rosie Show was actively awful. Instead, it was listlessly mediocre in the way that uninspired television created by true professionals can be.
The elements were there: live broadcast, expert band, adoring audience, hip celebrity friend, earnest talk about "issues" and a brief drive-by visit from the Queen of All Media herself.
But in the end, O'Donnell tried a bit too hard to pretend the last nine years didn't exist -- that she was bounding back up onto a talk show stage moments after leaving her first chat show; a Merv Griffin-style lovefest she actually left back in 2002. That was when she still pretended that she might like men -- professing elaborate crushes on hunky stars such as Tom Cruise for her middle aged audience -- developing a Queen of Nice nickname which seemed at odds with her demanding offstage persona.
Since then, we've seen her go toe to toe with Barbara Walters on Walters' own show, The View, reducing brittle resident conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck to tears and taking on Donald Trump for good measure. She's come out the showbiz closet, found a wife, split with that spouse and taken up with a younger partner.
It's not 2002 anymore, so watching O'Donnell open with an uncomfortable monologue packed with flat jokes, standing with a microphone in front of a heavy drape like she was doing the closing set at Catch a Rising Star -- well, that's just not compelling. It's not 1978, so taking questions from starstruck fans in the audience like Carol Burnett once did on her classic variety show doesn't feel fresh, either. Esepcially when you can't edit the exchanges to pull out the best moments.
A dance number with shirtless young men set to the tune The Night Chicago Died, felt forced -- like too much of this debut.
And spending most of your program with a single celebrity is a great idea -- if that celebrity is more than the stylish grab bag of cheeky one-liners and offhand attitude that is Russell Brand. And when Brand did come close to saying something profound -- I quite liked his observation that fame was "a glistening golden prison of nothiness" -- O'Donnell skittered around it like it might explode in her face, complimenting him for the thought without actually exploring it.
A joke about how Brand stumbled in hosting the MTV awards, thrown by the fact that he isn't nearly as big a star in America as he is in England, was marred by a simple truth. He's still not that big a star in America, and I'm betting OWN's middle aged audience was still trying to figure out who he was by the time he left the stage.
And if he's hanging out for so long, why not let him play the trivia games at the show's end, instead of centering it on two audience members we don't know?
In the end, O'Donnell's show needs to be less about her -- maybe feature guests viewers want to see rather than pals she wants to hang out with -- and more about the audience she and Winfrey desperately need to make a habit of watching OWN.
Perhaps then her show will feel less like a journey back to the future and more like a bold new vision for female-centered programming on cable television.