Oprah Winfrey, the grande dame of grand gestures, unveiled her new ABC reality show, Oprah's Big Give, on Sunday. It's a philanthropy race: the better a contestant's ability to shake down donations, the better his or her chances of not getting sent home. Novel idea, even if Donald Trump kinda got to it first with his Celebrity Apprentice, in which all money raised by the competing teams is for specific charities (and the real causes, you could say, are the subfamous names participating).
Of course, the speed-for-need aspect of Oprah's show — Sunday started with five teams of two, and only five days to generate the most money for assigned individuals with crushing financial straits — is not solely about who has the most zeros on their oversize cardboard check at the end of each fund-raising flurry. Contestants are also rated on their heartstring-yanking talents and showmanship as event coordinators — their ability to give big and with bigness, so that the widow, the homeless mother, the caretaker for Down-syndrome kids, the bill-strapped family, is left feeling less like a handout recipient and more like (cross your fingers!) the community-swamped George Bailey at the end of It's a Wonderful Life. In other words, they're going to Oprah school. This is where your taste for slickly edited TV altruism — the kind where nobody acknowledges that the do-gooders wouldn't be able to raise any of this cash that quickly if it weren't for the cameras and the good PR attached to donating under the Big O's shadow — has the potential to turn sour. It's hard not to be moved by the hardships of the beneficiaries, people who have the kinds of treading-water problems that in most cases would make them invisible to us.
As for the contestants' earnest talk about how their experiences on Oprah's show prove the power of what one person can do, I have to laugh. Such happily deluded souls: They think they mean themselves.