‘Love Thy Neighbor’: Tyler Perry makes Oprah look mean
“Love Thy Neighbor,” which premiered Wednesday and is Tyler Perry’s second contribution to the oeuvre of OWN, revolves around a shrill, invective-spewing granny and the family she delights in continually abusing.
It is a comedy, and to ensure that the television audience understands that comedies exist to make people laugh, Perry has thoughtfully and thoroughly seeded it with a laugh track so intrusive it becomes a character in itself.
Most of the show’s attempts at humor spring from an emotionally abusive little old lady -- her full name is Hattie Mae Love (Patrice Lovely), get it? -- who dances around in a rage as she tries to get various family members “outta my house.”
Cantankerous oldsters are, of course, a staple of comedy. But 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.
Although she has a Madea-like quality in that she is played by a much younger woman, there is virtually no humanity in Hattie. As we watch her berate and deride daughter Linda (Kendra C. Johnson) -- whom we learn Hattie first threw out of the house when Linda was but 17 (hahaha)--- and grandson Danny (Andre Hall), a college graduate having difficulty finding a job in a tough market (hahaha), one is left to wonder how much Perry hates his own grandmother.
Only her brother-in-law and business partner Floyd (played with admirable comedic grace by Palmer Williams Jr.) seems immune to Hattie’s hatefulness. Linda certainly is not; at the end of episode one, she discovers that her husband is cheating on her. Again.
Hattie predictably explodes with a chattering rage when Linda asks to move back home. By episode two, she is considering a reconciliation because she feels she is unfit for anything other than an unhappy marriage.
Wow, wonder why? Surely, there was an episode of Oprah based on just this sort of unhealthy relationship.
Which is what makes so baffling Oprah’s choice of Perry as the hero on the white horse come to save her network. The often overly sanctimonious OWN could certainly benefit from irreverent humor, satire, and perhaps even salaciousness.
But “Love Thy Neighbor” simply, and unforgivably, equates rancor with humor, which is directly at odds with the brand Oprah has so carefully curated all these years -- not to mention the uplifting mandate she originally imagined for OWN. “Love Thy Neighbor” makes the “Real Housewives” franchise look life-affirming.
Nor does Oprah appear concerned that neither of the Perry’s shows would survive a table read at any other network. Tuesday night’s premiere of “The Haves and the Have Nots” drew 1.7 million viewers, a record number for a scripted drama on the low-rated OWN. (Still, it’s more than HBO’s much hyped “Girls” can claim.) Whether viewers tune in for a second dose of Perry’s creation remains to be seen.
But the larger issue is one of image -- from the beginning, OWN claimed to value quality over quantity, its programming developed to fit in Oprah’s world view and, more importantly perhaps, her taste.
Oprah became a star by hosting a ground-breaking talk show, but it’s as an arbiter worthy of trust that she built her empire. Between her book club and her Favorite Things specials, she controlled a major stream of public consumption.
For years, the public has taken her advice on what to buy, what to read, who to listen to, what to wear and how to think about things. Any item she recommended sold out faster than knock-offs of Kate Middleton’s latest maternity top.
When Oprah claimed that knowledge of the beef industry kept her from eating another hamburger, cattle ranchers sued; when James Frey’s Oprah anointed memoir was revealed to be largely fictitious, his biggest crime was the betrayal of Oprah. For better and worse, she gave us Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Suzie Orman.
Which means there’s a lot riding on her picking Perry to help make OWN the best version of itself.
And if “The Haves and the Have Nots” and “Love Thy Neighbor” are an indication of things to come, well, as Dr. Phil would say, Oprah’s picker is broken.
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