You’ve got this information in your mind, where you think: we the human race could establish a utopia based on spirituality. They think, if you say that on The Rosie Show, people will think, “Wait a minute, that’s a weird thing to say.” So you just don’t say it. — Russell Brand
Swapping the galloping steeds for the shirtless chorus boys, Rosie O’Donnell attempted to use Spanx and Depends jokes to play the unstereotypical role of White Knight(ess) for the struggling cable channel OWN. Hyperbole? If the ten cabs bearing Rosie ads I saw on my walk to the subway home tonight weren’t proof enough that OWN’s placed ALL of its chips on The Rosie Show, the LIVE broadcast of tonight’s premiere episode over numerous Discovery-owned cable channels confirms it.
As a major fan of her old show and even of her year on The View, I eagerly anticipated the new program, while also forcefully tempering my expectations with memories of the disaster that was 2008’s Rosie Live! on NBC. Indeed, you’d think the experience of that monster alone would be enough to sway Rosie and the producers away from chancing another live broadcast. But no! The possible reward outweighed the risk apparently. And while the premiere of the new show bore some resemblance to that justly forgotten abortion of a TV special, The Rosie Show definitely has promise and definitely has legs.
Or more accurately: it has chests. And chiseled ones at that. Prompted by “audience member” Suze Orman (“How did you end up in Chicago?”), a svelte and looking better-than-ever Rosie launched into an inspired song-and-dance number describing her new life as a Chicago resident. And if it’s a Rosie musical number, chorus boys sure aren’t far behind. When they stripped off their shirts 15 minutes into the episode, it only confirmed what was apparent earlier during the Q&A: the main audience for this show is plainly gay men. (The slightly tacky (?) chorus boy de-shirting—“Momma’s getting hot, my face is red; it’s true that I’m gay, but I’m not dead”—was the moment my roommate A walked out of the room saying, “I can’t handle this anymore. I just can’t.” Now you know how I feel when you watch Glee, I replied.)
Before the male middrift musical number, the show began with a solid, if rocky, stand-up routine (“You people in Chicago are a lot nicer than people in New York, really, I’m saying that. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I’m a die hard New Yorker, but I’ve been here for three months and no one has given me the finger yet.”) She also did a Penny Marshall impersonation which, in my book, is always perfection. Ro then took three questions from the audience—à la Carol Burnett (SPOILER ALERT: Rosie O’Donnell is NO Carol Burnett.). One question came from a Canadian gay man, another from an overweight gay man, and the final one from fellow OWN star (and fellow out gay woman) Suze Orman. The jury was in: this show is GAY.
But you mustn’t forget that it’s on the OWN channel and can’t be SO GAY as to scare off middle American housewives, whatever or whomever that means. Thus, instead of Liza Minnelli rising from a trap door crooning “City Lights”, most of the show featured British comedian/aspiring American film star Russell Brand. Labeled in the pre-show press as Rosie’s new crush, Rosie’s “new Tom Cruise”, greasy, long-haired (like Jesus-long-NASTY-haired) Brand made a somewhat refreshing if not overly self-engrossed first episode guest. Not there promoting a movie or a TV show (and not reading the audience at all either), he spent much of his time smugly slouching in the chair, clever by half, critiquing capitalism and the “materialism age”, an odd, if not awkward, juxtaposition for a show, as noted by Rosie, about to jump to numerous commercials:
RB: Just think, the materialistic age has reached its natural conclusion. It’s proven that consumerism and the corporate world cannot provide solutions for us. We are spiritual beings, but “NEVER SAY IT!”
RO: Especially on a show when you’re about to throw to commercial.
RB: Those products may help you, I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly say. Myself, I have a different agenda.
Often stuttering, Brand seemed censored, muted or just confused, definitely not showing the pride, nobility and fun he claimed he earned as multi-year winner of the UK’s “Shagger of the Year” Award. He was ultimately redeemed, however, by a segment showing his visit to Friendly House, a women’s substance abuse rehabilitation center.
Rosie often stated in the pre-show press about wanting to have only one guest per show, in order to have an “actual conversation”. Screw the three minutes with a plug and you’re done! she said. An actual, multi-segment conversation with the guest is an admirable goal, in fact; it’s a situation not present on any current talk show at all, only apparent on YouTube clips of 1970’s Dick Cavett and other ancestors from another time. On her late SiriusXM radio show, Rosie herself learned to become a master of this type of conversation after a month or two of fits and starts.
So perhaps the Live! broadcast or her nerves and/or Oprah’s presence backstage induced some sort of terror into her, but most of the “actual conversation” with Brand— save for a truly delightful moment with a six year-old audience member “auditioning” for Oliver: “Please sir, can I have some more?”—felt rushed, awkward, and anything but “actual”. But give her a few weeks, and I’d bet money that awkwardness is gone. Just like she did behind the microphones, she’ll find her groove behind the cameras. Once again.
As promised, the show ended with a game show: pitting Charles, an Asian, Stanford-educated, gay doctor (and a M.D. Doctor to boot!), against Debbie, a slightly overweight, slightly trashy, white, middle-aged law firm receptionist, in a contest featuring words that contain “Ro”; i.e., “propose”, “jump rope”, “Charro”. (Charro?!?) Despite Rosie’s overt cheating to help even the game’s score, the winner wasn’t really ever up for grabs. As perhaps the ratings will show, the series is catering to gay men Number One, and Charles, the gay doctor with an overpriced undergraduate education, owes his trip to Bermuda to that fact.
Closing out the episode was the obvious and obligatory (and vastly underutilized) surprise guest appearance by “the Queen” herself, Oprah Winfrey. Walking onto the stage she made famous, Oprah was relegated to simply prompting the confetti explosions and then embracing her successor.
One kiss, two kiss, gay kiss, May-I-give-you-my-old-ratings kiss?!?
Indeed, despite the remodel, the set still vividly resembles Oprah’s old stage and, with its insane familiarity to oldtime O viewers, it could begin to resemble a jail cell for Rosie. Wanting to deliver for/replace Oprah and striving to reclaim her own talk show mantle are two very different objectives and both competed against each other during the premiere.
Despite the constraints from occupying Oprah’s old studio, it was clear The Rosie Show strove for something different. From the new plush velvet chairs and “hip” purple backdrop lighting to the risque-but-safe-for-all tone—like trumpeting the fact that band leader Katreese Barnes, who leads a Kenny G, soft jazz band at the most, co-wrote SNL’s “Dick in the Box” but bleeping out the word “dick”—I’d posit that The Rosie Show’s natural role model is neither The Rosie O’Donnell Show of yore nor the late Oprah Winfrey Show, but instead it is the BBC’s The Graham Norton Show.
The Rosie Show could be well served to lose the Oprah-style two-chair set-up in favor of a long lounge-style chaise, add a glass or three of wine for the guest(s) and host to imbibe and then just let loose. Graham Norton’s not for everyone, I know; but he always looks like he’s having fun. I attended a taping of Rosie’s old show in January 2001, during the final months of her old show: she was not having fun anymore.
During tonight’s premiere episode of The Rosie Show, it kind of looked like she was having fun. More so though, it looked like she was trying to have fun, trying too hard, too hard. For The Rosie Show to succeed, she has to shake off the pressure and dig down and dig deep and let go. Let go and have fun. She did it on the old show. She did it on the radio show. And she can do it again.
The pre-premiere press was all about how Rosie was living it up—in the new house, with the new girlfriend, in the new city. Heck, she even visited Sidetrack for Sing-A-Long Sundays the night before her premiere!
A lot more of that energy and verve, and the show will most definitely work. She also needs to showcase Chicago more. Rosie, as a fish out of water? Rosie, as a New Yorker trapped in a midwestern desert? Bring on the footage of her asking for ketchup on her dogs. Bring on the footage of her at Sidetrack. The audience wants to see Ro as a regular person—that’s always been her charm. Give us that, and her show can be ANYTHING! Give us that, and her show can be AMAZING! Give us that, and haterz can be damned.
(So long as long as she gets a new announcer. No offense Michelle Blakely, but OOF! You got to go.)