Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oprah's Sleight of Hand

All the boo-hooing coast to coast as Oprah Winfrey wrapped up her twenty-five year run as an afternoon talk show host was just about the best marketing campaign that Winfrey could have pulled off to re-launch her OWN Network. Winfrey devoted an entire season to her farewell.  And while all of us were all focused on the countdown to the last show, her most memorable guests, the star-studded tributes, and the final "love letter" sermon in pink, we were probably not completely catching the sleight of hand at play — the now you see me, now you don't  magic that Winfrey had orchestrated. 

There's something primal in that peek-a-boo moment.  Each of us have moved through that developmental stage where we learn "object permanence" (the term the philosopher and psychologist Piaget used for knowing that something can exist even when we aren't seeing it).  In the process we gain a sense of ourselves as finite, grounded beings rather than omnipotent infantile masters of the universe. In the play of peek-a-boo, we are giving up the fantasies of omnipotence that the infant enjoys and replacing them with a grounded sense of reality and finitude. If something can exist without us, then the world can go on without us. And, reciprocally, we can go on without the object we may desire, albeit with much mourning to do. 

But Oprah has saved us this work of mourning.  Even as loyal viewers are still bereft over the loss of their afternoon gal-pal, Oprah will return on OWN, a resurrection (or is it a second coming?) worthy of the talk show host who let her audience know in her final afternoon episode that she believes that she is chosen by God to do this work. She calls her show a classroom, but let's be clear that it's more than that. Oprah's got herself a ministry. And although it looks like she's saving us from our muffin-tops, our household clutter, our ill-fitting bras, and our dysfunctional marriages, she's actually been saving our flagging institutions, from book publishing all the way to the Presidency.  She helped publishers faced with declining sales regain ground with instant bestsellers. She helped Obama win the White House and in the process shored up confidence in the electoral process after the disastrous 2000 Supreme Court selection of George W. Bush.

We've grown accustomed to Oprah Winfrey's magic.  We're used to the way that she pulls out a car for every teacher in the audience on the big giveaway show, to the mini-miracle of the before and after of the makeover, even to the stagecraft of a jumbo-jet sliding out onto her set with John Travolta as the uniformed pilot set to take "ultimate viewers" on the trip of lifetime. We're even used to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't of her own weight loss efforts, including the big reveal of 67 pounds of fat in Radio Flyer red wagon. But never before has Oprah's big reveal been the big reveal of herself, gone and back again.

Keep your eyes on Oprah as she sets out to work her legerdemain again, this time 24/7.