The allure of a feel-good charity show bearing Oprah Winfrey’s seal of approval collides awkwardly with the competition-reality genre in this series scheduled to temporarily occupy “Desperate Housewives’ ” timeslot. Five pairs of contestants vie to “out-give each other” in the premiere, assisting down-on-their-luck sob stories. Tears do flow freely, but the impulse to tart up “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” as a competition — with pinches of “The Apprentice” and “The Amazing Race” — is a bit like smothering a fluffy pastry in barbecue sauce. The two just don’t mix.
On the plus side for ABC, Winfrey’s fingerprints are all over the “Big Give,” providing the series an enormous leg up. The concept, however — hatched with “Amazing Race’s” Bertram van Munster — lurches forward like a reality-TV Frankenstein, birthed from parts of other programs.
Oprah herself ebulliently delivers the “You’re in!” news to the 10 participants, who include a 23-year-old beauty queen, a paraplegic and an Iraq war vet. They’re quickly divided into teams and tasked with helping a widow, a homeless mom, an inner-city doctor with $200,000 in student loans to repay, etc., racing deadlines to see how much they can raise. Personalities clash, tensions rise, but eventually oversized checks are written and the music swells.
At that point, though, a perplexing thing happens: The givers are passed over to three particularly arbitrary “expert” judges — “Naked” chef/philanthropist Jamie Oliver, NFL star Tony Gonzalez and charity founder Malaak Compton-Rock (comic Chris Rock’s wife) — where their benevolent work is evaluated and somebody is booted.
Barring that, the evangelistic tone is emblematic of Winfrey’s graduation from talkshow host into life-force, inspiring a cult of Oprah that often entails a fondness for facile solutions to complex problems. The result is a series that wants to do good and still have enough “edge” to do well in the rough-and-tumble, less-nurturing environment of reality TV, which feels out of step with all the good vibrations.
That said, even those who dismiss Winfrey’s daytime show for its saccharine streak shouldn’t be blind to “Big Give’s” emotional appeal. Winfrey teases the participation of other celebrities in future installments (John Travolta and Jennifer Aniston among them), and the charitable winner will be surprised with $1 million. Given its success with “Oprah Winfrey Presents” movies and the strike-created programming void, ABC would doubtless be happy to air still photos of the host, so even a soft-focus series bearing the Oprah brand qualifies as a no-brainer.
In ABC’s press release, Winfrey insists that “America will just love the heart of this show,” and to be fair, that organ does appear to be in the right place. It’s just the surrounding parts and pieces, alas, that seem to have been rather haphazardly stitched together.