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Television Review

Oprah's reality show turns giving into a competition

Oprah Winfrey (with Jamie Oliver of 'Naked Chef') pits Big Givers against each other. Oprah Winfrey (with Jamie Oliver of "Naked Chef") pits Big Givers against each other. (ABC)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 1, 2008

Do you ever encounter those people who always let you know they're bringing more good into the world than you are? They're the classic holier-than-thou set, donating money to more important causes than you do, helping those in need on Saturdays and on Sundays, and, most important of all, telling you all about it. Because, compared to them, you are selfish, and petty, too.

Well send them on down to "Oprah's Big Give," a new reality show premiering tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 5. The ABC series pits do-gooders against one another to see who can bring the most positivity into the universe - next to Oprah Winfrey, of course, whose positivity predominance I dare not challenge.

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Part "Apprentice," part "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Oprah's Big Give" turns helping the needy into a fierce contest, as 10 "Big Givers" compete to be Oprah's favorite player and - without knowing it - the recipient of $1 million. That's right, the most effectively altruistic Giver, Oprah tells us secretly, will go home with a chunk of cash, which, I assume, he or she will donate entirely to charity.

A small peeve: At the start of the premiere, the 10 Big Givers are shocked, I tell you, shocked to receive a phone call from Oprah Herself inviting them to join the show. Reality TV asks us to ignore the fact that cameras are already positioned in the room when the phone rings, and contestants expect us to believe their feigned surprise. Can we please eliminate this ridiculous reality ritual?

And so we meet the chosen few, among them a young dot-com millionaire, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, a train attendant, and a woman who's just tired of being self-centered. They are broken up into "Amazing Race"-like teams and given the names of strangers to help - a homeless mother, a financially strapped Iraq veteran, a woman who runs a center for people with disabilities. As the clock ticks, they race to raise money.

Later in the show, the givers are judged on their performances by a strangely random trio of judges - "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver, football's Tony Gonzalez, and Malaak Compton-Rock, Chris Rock's wife. One of the contestants will be eliminated each week. Is it strange to make good will and charity into a win-lose proposition? Is it peculiar to judge the givers on their manner of giving, to quantify their largesse? To me, yes, it is, and the show makes for awkward viewing as a result. Donald Trump isn't present, of course, but his competitive spirit is.

The show also glosses over the players' fund-raising techniques enough to make raising money for the needy look amazingly easy. Yeah, when you have Oprah's name behind you, and cameras through which donations can translate into corporate and individual plugs (including one by Jamie Foxx), raising money probably is amazingly easy. But for most of us mortals, it's a hard challenge, and I imagine some viewers will feel helpless because they can't rush out and save a homeless mom in five days' time.

Which isn't to say that, like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Oprah's Big Give" doesn't have its emotional moments. In the premiere, two Big Givers come to the rescue of a woman with kids whose husband was recently murdered during a Home Depot shooting. The Givers raise enough money to help her keep her house, they gather the entire neighborhood together for a presentation, and, in a sweet moment, they help the family launch balloons containing notes to the deceased.

Reader, I cried.

But still, "Oprah's Big Give" is an inconsistent mixture of messages. Ultimately, the only message that doesn't get obscured or twisted is Oprah's name.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Oprah's Big Give

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10

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