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Oprah’s behind-the-scenes series: unexpectedly great television

While Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star is a pretty weak competition series, the other major reality show on the new network, Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, is surprisingly great television. I rarely watch Oprah, but I find this to be fascinating; I’d watch an hour of it every day if I could.

The show, which airs new episodes on Fridays at 8 p.m. ET, follows Oprah’s daytime talk show’s producers as they assemble episodes of the show, and cameras go everywhere from dressing rooms to rehearsals to Oprah’s office. There’s a little too much of what I think of as the ABC reality show vibe: that jaunty music, the overly dramatic orchestration, the obviously controlled presentation. I’d like it to be a little rawer and grittier, because the show touches on some raw, tense moments, but I understand why they’d want a shiny surface on the less-than-perfect parts.

Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes works because there is a real willingness to show the things you wouldn’t expect to see: Liza Minnelli telling a producer to “cut that” question about her marriage, Oprah telling the camera crews “okay guys, thank you!” when she wanted them to leave her and Gayle alone, Liza Minnelli arguing with producers about her live performance. While there’s nothing awful that happens on camera, and you get the sense that the interviews with producers and even Oprah gloss over some details, it does show the rough edges, from Jon Stewart showing up late to Oprah being irritated by producers’ plans for her to do a stand-up introduction while on location.

Oprah usually seems like she’s in performance mode, but I’m not sure she has another mode. That said, we do see a slightly new side of her, and she doesn’t always come off as perfect (although just by virtue of allowing cameras into her office where she disagrees with staff and admits her mistakes, she looks great, of course, even when she’s wrong). In the first episode, Oprah is confronted by her publicist about a comment she made on air, telling a man, “you seem gayer,” and she has a discussion about whether this is offensive. The behind-the-scenes show even broke its fourth wall, as a producer stepped forward as a gay man to discuss this with Oprah, just as Jon Stewart acknowledged the camera crew.

It’s very clear that Oprah is rather insulated from the reality of producing her show, and her producers are the real stars of this series, and really do give us a sense of what it’s like to produce a daily reality TV show. It’s fascinating to watch them control reality and carefully plan nearly every detail of every show–not surprising, just interesting, especially when it leads to conflict.

The camping episode was by far the best, in part because there were a lot of behind-the-scenes moments on location, and in part because it illustrated the central problem of orchestrating reality. “You must be out of your mind. You’re delusional,” Oprah told a producer when the producer suggested Oprah put on her clothes from the day before to re-shoot something they didn’t get on camera. Oprah says, “I don’t have to make anything up or repeat anything.” Thanks to her willingness to be actually unscripted, Oprah’s given us some great reality TV.

Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes: B+

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