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Rosie O'Donnell is back on TV, with a little help from Oprah

October 10, 2011 |  7:26 pm

Rosie odonnell on OWN 
Finally, the Oprah Winfrey Network has something like a twinkle in its eye.

“The Rosie Show,” which premiered live from Harpo Studios on Monday afternoon, has been touted as Rosie O’Donnell’s much-anticipated return to television, which may be overstating the case slightly. In the 10 years since her syndicated daytime talk show “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” ended, the former stand-up and sometime film star seemed to be going out of her way to shake off the “Queen of Nice” mantle she had crocheted for herself while sweet-talking celebrities for six seasons.

In 2006, she got cranky and righteous, locking horns with Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “The View” before walking off in a huff. She produced and starred in a Lifetime movie, launched a variety show so terrible it ended after a single episode, and wrote a memoir about how awful it was to be on “The View.” None of which guaranteed or even hinted that O’Donnell would be the one to haul up OWN’s disappointing ratings.

Which “The Rosie Show” might just do. It had a not-bad, pretty good, kinda funny, sort of smart debut. Not the sort of thing that would rock a major network back on its heels with joy, but it certainly provided an oasis of humor and sunshine amid OWN’s endless replaying of the self-congratulatory final episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

It was “nice Rosie” who showed up, in Diane von Furstenberg shmatte, as she said, and Prada boots, with the best hair cut she’s had in … well, ever, and the easy, zingy showmanship that has kept her afloat in fans even during the rocky years.

Wisely, she opened with a little stand-up, and sure there were Spanx jokes — the woman just cannot get over Spanx, which is of course a funny word and something to which many OWN viewers can relate — but it was lovely to see her back behind the microphone doing Penny Marshall impersonations and poking fun at herself for “the chubby person’s shirt pull.” There were questions from the audience — "just like Carol Burnett but not really because she’s a genius, and I’m just me” — which unfortunately included fellow Oprah acolyte Suze Orman (who seems to have it in her contract that she will show up on every OWN show or else).

Orman’s question led to a mildly hilarious song about how O’Donnell came to Chicago set to the tune of “The Night Chicago Died” (which, for TV critics of a certain age, alone made the show worth watching) and accompanied by a group of chorus boys who were soon shirtless, allowing Rosie to sing that “It’s true I’m gay, but I’m not dead.”

The rest of the show was devoted to official first guest and new O’Donnell “crush” Russell Brand and his admirable ability to act like a semi-strung-out dingbat while talking most sensibly and articulately about topics as diverse as the playing out of the commercialistic age, the emptiness of celebrity culture and the benefits of being a three-time winner of the Shagger of the Year Award. He also brought with him a pre-taped mini-tour of Friendly House, a recovery center for women, which allowed him to publicly advocate for recovery and praise its admirable director, Peggy Albrecht, but in a way that made a nice point about recovery without getting too maudlin. "This is the first time you’ve appeared on television fully clothed, isn’t it, Peggy?”

Which was a good thing, a tremendous thing because more maudlin is not what OWN, with its endless rotation of heart-wrenching/breaking/string-tugging reality shows, needs. Yes, O’Donnell and Brand were talking about addiction, a Winfrey-approved topic, but in such a lively way that people might actually listen. “When I was a drug addict, actively,” said Brand, cutting mercifully to the chase, “I was very annoying.”

Things ended in a very Rosie way, with a game show called “The Ro Show” during which Carol the receptionist began losing badly to the Stanford-educated doctor, so O’Donnell started cheating, which gave the whole thing a nice Password-at-home feel. Sure, the set is absurdly purple, and the Woman For Which the Network is Named showed up at the end.

But it was such good clean fun that for a moment one was allowed to forget that next period it was back to the life-lesson-learning grind, with “Oprah’s Masterclass.”

RELATED:

Rosie O'Donnell on why she's done with big networks

An open letter to Oprah on how to fix OWN

Sunday Conversation with Rosie

 

— Mary McNamara

Photo: Rosie O'Donnell. Credit: Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press.

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