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Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': A double dose of James Frey

May 16, 2011 |  4:44 pm

From the moment it was announced that the 25th season of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show would be her last, there has been the giddy promise of what America’s beloved, derided, oracular maker of self-help and celebrity magic would have up her sleeve.

The possibilities seemed infinite, fantastical, destined to widen eyes, provoke shrieking excitement and inspire parody. We would live our Best Lives and make them BETTERRRRR! It would be like the Wizard of Dr. Oz: Dr. Phil would be there! And Gail! And you would be there too, John Travolta, and you, Barack Obama! It was a fun parlor game to guess at what absurdist lineups might be in store: Barbra Streisand and Jonathan Franzen! The ghost of Michael Jackson! J.K. Rowling doing an oral presentation of an eighth Harry Potter book! Bigfoot! You get a pet lion! You get a pet lion! You get a pet lion!

In many respects, the season has not let us down. Gail, Steadman, Drs. Phil and Oz, Travolta, Franzen and both Barack and Michelle Obama have all shown up. One mind-bending show featured both Jon Stewart and Liza Minnelli! Rowling appeared, conceding that she “could definitely write an eighth book"; and while there has not yet been a pet lion giveaway, one of Oprah’s guests was a talking chimp.

But now we’re at the end, the final eight days, and the fantasies must begin to abate. So I was slightly crestfallen to learn that two -– two! -- of the precious final hours were dedicated to an extended interview with James Frey, disgraced author of "A Million Little Pieces."

Back in 2005, Oprah picked Frey’s purported memoir, which had been a bestseller two years earlier, for her book club. When it was revealed in 2006 that Frey had made parts of his memoir up, Oprah first defended him and then, caught in a scrum of high-profile media criticism for her role in a culture of “truthiness,” had invited him on her show for one of the most blistering public spankings in pop culture memory.

Oprah’s 2006 flogging of Frey was fierce, fiery, unforgettable. Having him back for a quick farewell follow-up might have made sense, and perhaps been compelling, earlier in the season. But Frey is now an old story, the controversy stale. And the frustrating thing about Winfrey’s farewell season has been that every show has felt over-stuffed with too many stars shoehorned in together.

During a recent comedy episode meant to feature Tina Fey, Fey dutifully coughed up an exclusive-to-Oprah revelation –- that she was five months pregnant –- but could barely get another sly word in edgewise. She was crammed in with former cast members of "Saturday Night Live," one of whom, Jane Curtin, provocatively recalled that the late John Belushi had sabotaged skits written by women, a comment that Oprah barely had time to acknowledge, let alone follow up on, so many guests were left to attend to.

On another show, Winfrey started down a great interrogative path, asking rock legend Stevie Nicks about whether female rock stars had groupies. When Nicks emphatically replied that they didn’t and launched into a rarely heard description of life on tour for women versus men, Oprah had to rush past her to get to the rest of her agenda, which included Sheryl Crow, Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, Salt-N-Pepa, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne and a singalong with Sister Sledge!

So very many of Oprah’s final shows could have extended over two, three or four hours. But they weren’t. Instead, we get two hours with an author whose 8-year-old-book was already discredited thoroughly, on Oprah's show, six years ago?

Yes. That is what we get. And we get it because it is what Oprah wants.

Monday’s episode began with a refresher on the Frey scandal, focusing on how Oprah’s inclusion of the book in her all-powerful book club had catapulted it back to the bestseller list for 17 weeks and helped it to sell 4 million copies, and then on how Oprah’s initial support of Frey led to her being taken to task. Highlights of the ensuing Oprah-Frey showdown played briefly. “It remains the biggest controversy in our 25 years.”

Really? Bigger than Franzen? Bigger than the Secret? Bigger than her beef trial? Bigger than Tom Cruise? The superlatives have come fast and furious in Oprah’s last season; every other sentence out of Winfrey’s mouth is about how one guest elicited the biggest response in 25 years, or another affected her more deeply than any other.  So sure, maybe Frey was the biggest scandal. But don’t confuse him with the "Oprah" show’s most scintillating conversation or its most inspiring weight loss story. James Frey was just an ambitious and opportunistic writer who happened to get Oprah in the most trouble.

Oprah appeared to be most stumped and fascinated by Frey’s confession that he had never watched the episode in question, aside from the clips he saw in O’Hare and LaGuardia on his way home from Chicago to New York. “Why? Why have you never watched it?” she asked, flummoxed.

Obsessed not with Frey’s memories of his own choices at that time, but with his memories and impressions of her choices, Oprah was stubbornly incurious about Frey’s experience of anything other than his appearance on her show. Winfrey followed her interrogation of why he hadn’t watched the episode with a question about how Frey felt in the car after having taped the episode. When he told her the tale of driving home and finding himself laughing out loud, Oprah asked, “Did you ever cry about it? Did you shed a tear about it?. . . Were you angry? Were you frustrated? Were you angry with me? Did you think you’d been set up?”

Most interesting, Frey said that he did feel that he’d been set up, that producers had not been straight with him about what the show was supposed to be, and that he did not realize he was going to be taken to task until just before he took the stage, when a producer told him, “This is gonna be rough; it’s gonna be hard. Don’t walk off; don’t yell. I promise you’ll be redeemed at the end of this.”

Oprah did not offer any reaction to the accusation that her producers had misled him. It didn’t seem to matter to Frey, who conceded that even if he’d known the extent of how bad it was going to be, he still would have come on the show.

“I wrote a book and I published it as something that it wasn’t and I was dishonest in promoting that book, and that’s how I got here,” Frey said, summing up the situation succinctly. But Oprah went on, prodding Frey to recall how he’d first felt when he’d learned he was a book club pick, whether he thought she had been too hard on him.

I cannot believe we did not get to hear more from Stevie Nicks about sex with male groupies.

But this interview –- or at least the first half of it –- was not about another person’s personal history, not even about James Frey’s. “What did you think of the way [the interview] was conducted?” Oprah was still asking at the end of the episode.  When he again told Winfrey that he’d felt ambushed, she again failed to respond directly to the accusation, and instead told the story of how her friend, the spiritualist and author Marianne Williamson had called her after the Frey show and said, “How dare you?” and castigated Winfrey for the superior and censorious pose she’d taken with Frey.

What has made Oprah compelling for more than a quarter-century has not just been her power, her tractor beam cultural pull. It has also been her all too obvious fallibilities, chief among them her obsession with what other people think of her.

A perplexing two episodes out of a final eight with James Frey appear, at least from the first hour, to be much less about James Frey and than about Oprah Winfrey. We are getting a final tour of her self-obsession and self-doubt, a return to one of the rare controversies that caused her to fall out of favor with cultural critics and friends, in which she perhaps did not wield her Oprah powers wisely or to great acclaim.

It’s frustrating but appropriate. This, along with the healers and the Scientologists and the cars and the wizards is Oprah –- personal weaknesses, narcissism and self-doubt on full display.

Tune in tomorrow.


Interview with producer Sheri Salata about the final episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show"

Critic's Notebook: Oprah's revolution will continue to be televised

 -- Rebecca Traister

Photo: James Frey and Oprah. Credit: George Burns/Associated Press /Harpo Productions