"Love Thy Neighbor," Tyler Perry's second contribution to the oeuvre of OWN this week, revolves around a shrill, invective-spewing elderly woman and the family she delights in abusing.
Her full name is Hattie Mae Love (get it?), and in a nod to Perry's Madea, she is played in full granny-drag by an actress, Patrice Lovely, much younger than herself. Most of what passes for humor in the early episodes of the heavily laugh-tracked show involves Hattie dancing around in a rage as she tries to get various family members "the hell outta my house."
Cantankerous oldsters are a staple of comedy, and if you turn the sound down on your television, Lovely's wig 'n' sweater get-up brings to mind Vicki Lawrence's iconic Mama from "The Carol Burnett Show." But as Lawrence and the Burnett writers knew, the trick is to evoke the anger, prejudice, exasperation, fear or simple confusion with which one generation often regards the next without losing the character's essential humanity.
It's hard to find much humanity in Hattie as we watch her deride those around her, especially daughter Linda (Kendra C. Johnson), whom we learn Hattie first threw out of her house when Linda was 17 (ha, ha, ha). Nothing Hattie says is particularly funny or outrageous. She's grating, loud and just plain mean.
So what on earth is she doing on OWN?
When Oprah Winfrey announced the creation of a signature network, she went out of her way to warn that its programming would be directly antithetical to the culture of mean that, according to Winfrey, dominates so much of television. During her Harvard commencement speech, made the day after "Love Thy Neighbor" premiered, she told graduates: "I wanted to use television, not have television use me, to illuminate the transcendent power of our better angels."
Tyler Perry: Actor, director, writer, producer and ... better angel?
As my colleagues Greg Braxton and Yvonne Villarreal pointed out last Sunday, many people were worried about Winfrey's choice of Perry as the struggling network's hero, and these two shows seem to validate that concern.
Perry's brand of entertainment is the polar opposite of transcendent. Unapologetically low-brow, his previous films and television shows have earned him die-hard fans — both new OWN shows premiered to about 1.7 million viewers — and equally devoted critics.
His hour-long drama, "The Haves and the Have Nots," which premiered Tuesday night, is a smorgasbord of Southern stereotypes. From the philandering judge to the scheming ungrateful daughter to the tough but wise maid, they are all two-dimensional. "Love Thy Neighbor" simply, and unforgivably, equates rancor with humor. Both shows are so clumsily produced, it's difficult to imagine them getting through a table read on any other network.
All of which completely contradicts the mandate Winfrey originally imagined for OWN. More important, it clouds the brand Winfrey has so carefully curated over the years by making viewers question her single greatest asset: her taste.
Winfrey became a star by hosting a groundbreaking talk show, but it's as a trustworthy source that she built her empire. For years the public has taken her advice on what to buy, what to read, whom to listen to, what to wear and how to think about things. Any item she recommended sold out faster than knockoffs of Kate Middleton's latest maternity top.
She resurrected the publishing industry, and gave us Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Suze Orman. When Winfrey claimed that knowledge of the beef industry kept her from eating another hamburger, cattle ranchers sued; when James Frey's Oprah Winfrey-anointed memoir was revealed to be largely fictitious, his biggest crime was the betrayal of Oprah.
For years she has championed Perry, whose work remains divisive among critics, audiences and the African American community. Perry just might deliver the numbers OWN needs to survive.
But he also might take down the whole Oprah brand to do it.
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