Oprah Winfrey narrated Discovery’s splendid nature series “Life,” and seeks to bring similar production values — including sleek photography and a sweeping score — to OWN’s take on faith in “Belief.” Yet as earnest and human-interest oriented as this seven-part production is, it will play best among those who buy into the billionaire mogul/personality’s particular brand of “Live your best life” mumbo-jumbo, a mix of spirituality and self-help. The Oprah seal of approval should make this a winner by OWN’s standards, but for all its positive energy, “Belief” will likely wind up preaching to the choir.
“My confidence comes from knowing there is a force, a power, greater than myself, that I’m a part of, and that is also a part of me,” Winfrey says in voiceover at the outset of each installment, summing up where she stands on the belief continuum. After that, however, the program is — literally and by design — all over the map, flitting to different spots across the globe to explore manifestations of faith in all its varied forms.
As Winfrey notes, the purpose of religious faith is generally tethered to the big and imponderable questions. As she puts it, “Why are we here? What does this all mean? Is there a divine order to the mystery of our lives?”
That quest for meaning is, of course, answered in a wide variety of ways. But other than demonstrating religious quests great and small — from a former skateboard whiz who converted to Islam making a pilgrimage to Mecca, to South Pacific islanders who undertake death-defying leaps of faith believing it will assist in the bounty of their harvest — “Belief” is content to explore how people find meaning in a respectful but also not-especially-illuminating fashion.
To its credit, not everything in this production is peaches and cream. The stories include an Evangelical Christian whose faith was tested by being raped, and a woman seeking the spiritual strength to extend forgiveness to her son’s murderer. Other segments acknowledge violence perpetrated in the name of religion, and attempts by a Christian pastor and Muslim imam in a war-torn part of Africa to find common ground and reconciliation.
Mostly, though, “Belief” approaches the topic in uplifting fashion, the sort of approach people sometimes refer to as “broccoli TV.” And in the three chapters previewed, another aspect of faith — namely, the absence of it — is scarcely mentioned.
“Life is a journey we are not meant to take alone,” Winfrey’s narration notes in the second hour, devoted to how love figures into various religions. Other nightly topics include dealing with tragedy and death, although there is, frankly, a good deal of repetition around the central themes.
Winfrey has turned her own journey into something of a crusade, leveraging her power, platform and wealth to spread self-empowering messages and do good works intended to help others. Although the program’s openness to different religions might not seem like a big deal, given some of the rampant xenophobia displayed during the current political cycle, the respectful presentation of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and other religions side by side seems timelier than it might have been otherwise.
By that measure, “Belief” is certainly a more admirable and ambitious manifestation of Winfrey’s brand than, say, filling OWN with Tyler Perry series. But for those who aren’t readily inclined to worship at the cult of Oprah, this project — however earnest and well intentioned — is, at least in TV terms, lacking in inspiration.