A month and half after its premiere, one thing is clear about Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network: it’s biggest ratings success, the show people are actually talking about and loving, is “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes“, which follows the star and her staff as they put together the final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show“. Piggybacking on the success of the daytime show is not what makes Season 25 so appealing, though.
It works because we get to see Oprah without makeup. We see her wearing glasses, and with her hair in a ponytail or in curlers. We watch her in sweats on the treadmill, and while she’s feeding her dog.
We don’t laugh at this deglamorized Oprah the way we’re meant to sneer at all those stars with cellulite on the covers of tabloids. This immensely rich and powerful woman comes across as more approachable and likable here than when she trots out some half-sister she didn’t even know she had — because that is one screwed-up family. With one thing and another it can be it can be hard to relate to Oprah. Season 25 humanizes her, and how brilliant is that?
She seems to know where the camera is every second, of course, and has obviously chosen to let us see her in this unscripted (or maybe less scripted) way. But the series is the latest example of how well she can gauge and project her image.
Season 25 is also well-produced and edited. Her producers – we recognize recurring faces without quite remembering their names – are hard-working, stressed-out men and women. Many look like they could use some time at the gym themselves. The drama comes from watching them lure guests, finesse tricky situations, and try to avoid giving Oprah bad news. Through them we see another side of her, the boss. We’re never waiting for The Wrath of Oprah – she’s apparently not an angry boss – but she can be intimidating and does not like to be disappointed, even if it’s about something as apparently trivial as not getting Apple to give iPads to her audience during the “Oprah’s Favorite Things” holiday show. (See the photo with iPad above; she won.)
Some episodes have been much more serious. Mark Fuhrman, who became famous during the O.J. Simpson trial for his history of racist comments, says he doesn’t want to talk about race on the show. We follow the nervous producers as they inform Oprah, who is having none of it. Then we eavesdrop as the producers call Fuhrman and try to persuade him to appear anyway.
Everyone loves peeking behind curtains – into restaurants’ kitchens, into recording studios. Season 25 is something more, because it speaks to what OWN has to build on: Oprah’s personality and the public’s fascination with it. No one thinks that’s enough to support a whole network, and some recent ratings showed that OWN had fewer viewers than the Discovery Health Channel it replaced. But right now that’s the best they’ve got.
The next new episode, Friday at 8 ET, includes Oprah getting ready to interview George W. Bush. Some people say she helped elect Obama, so it should be revealing to watch her prepare for that one.
Caryn James writes about TV and movies for IndieWire. For more, go to: James on Screen.