Lisa Ling’s investigations into the lives of sex offenders and faith healers won her a fast renewal for a second season of her documentary series “Our America with Lisa Ling,” one of the most successful series (so far) on Oprah Winfrey’s fledgling OWN channel.
Ling, 37, is already at work on Season Two even as Season One of “Our America” takes an extra bow with a special episode Tuesday night at 10/9c on OWN. It’s a seventh-hour “epilogue” to the six episodes of Season One that brings viewers up-to-date with the real-life subjects whose lives Ling documented during the season – including some of the sex offenders she found living in “exile” in the Florida woods, the heroin addicts she met in Ohio, the gay man named Christian who struggled with his faith and his sexual orientation in the episode titled “Pray the Gay Away,” and David from “Online Brides” who traveled to Colombia in search of a mate.
When we caught up with her for a phone interview, Ling was on-location somewhere in Utah working on a subject for Season Two that she would not divulge. However, she had no problem telling us all about Season One, revealing which episodes drew the most reaction, which ones surprised her the most, what it was like to work with Oprah Winfrey as her boss, and what Ling herself watches on TV. Here’s what she had to say:
You did six episodes, with this extra hour this week. Which one was your favorite? That’s a tough question because I love each one of them in a different way. [The episode about] ‘Faith Healers’ is just a great episode of television.
Why single that one out? Well, I think that it’s unexpected and it’s emotional and ultimately it’s hopeful. Every time I watch it, I still am hoping that Steve Felton [a wheelchair-bound man featured in the show] will walk.
Of the six shows, which one got the most reaction from viewers? For sure ‘Pray the Gay Away’ [about the belief held by some that homosexuality can be “reversed” through prayer] definitely generated the biggest reaction. I’m not surprised. The issue of homosexuality and Christianity is perhaps the most divisive issue in Christianity today. And we’re talking about two things that are so deeply personal for people – their faith and their sexual orientation. I’m proudest of that show because it wasn’t intended to be an ‘investigation.’ It was intended to provoke people to think and to try to allow viewers to kind of feel what it’s like to be in the shoes of both sides.
Which episode was the most popular, ratings-wise? Our highest-rated episode was ‘On-line Brides’ and that was definitely a lighter story and ultimately it was a love story. I think it resonated with people because at the end of the day, I think that we all long for love and so it was really relatable on a lot of levels. [The episode] came just after ‘Pray the Gay Away’ and the sex offender episode – both of which were very meaty topics, both of which performed very well, ratings-wise. But I think that even I was ready to sort of take a breath and just have [a lighter] experience without being so deeply provocative.
What is your process for deciding which stories you’ll do? The thing that I like to be able to do with all the stories is provoke conversation, provoke dialogue, provoke thought. So generally, I like to choose topics where there is a lot of gray area – topics that people may have very defined opinions about [that are formed from] a lot of rumor and hearsay without really stopping to try and understand different perspectives. Even our sex offender episode, for example. Sex offenders are considered the pariahs of society, but at the end of the day, they are still people. We try to put a human face on them, not to try to generate sympathy in any way, but I think we’re better people if we’re more-informed people.
What did Oprah Winfrey think of the show as the season progressed? What did she say to you? From Day One, Oprah said that there are two series that, no matter what, if they rate or they don’t rate, [she wants] to keep doing – this series and ‘Master Class.’ [She said] these are the kinds of shows that OWN needs to be doing whether they rate or not.
How did she explain that? Why are these shows special? They really are deep explorations into human beings and into the human psyche in a lot of ways. And they’re the kinds of shows that don’t tell you what to think. They just allow you to think.
You’re doing another six episodes for Season Two. Why only six? They’re very immersive. Because the show is called ‘Our America with Lisa Ling,’ Lisa Ling needs to be involved in all of it [laughs]. It’s very laborious. It’s work I just love doing. Even though it’s challenging on my personal life because I’m away a lot, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be when I’m in the field. Nothing is mundane. Everyday you’re immersing yourself in something totally different than the day before.
Will you reveal what you’re working on for Season Two? I shouldn’t just because the season isn’t starting for quite awhile, but one of the stories that we’re working on involves United States veterans. And why I’m proud of it is because you’d be hard-pressed to find any network that would do something on veterans because I think [TV] executives assume that people don’t want to hear anything about the war or about these conflicts that we’re engaged in.
What do you watch on television? I’m obsessed with “American Idol.” These kids are so bloody talented and they just come from, you know, scrubbing toilets or working at hardware stores and they’re able to live out their dreams in front of millions and millions of people. It’s good wholesome TV. It’s uplifting and it’s hopeful. I just love that. I also love “The Daily Show.”
Is that where you get your news, like so many Americans? [Laughs] No, I don’t get my news from “The Daily Show”! I think Jon Stewart is the most brilliant guy on television.