Is Oprah’s Boring-ness Contagious?

I caught the last ten minutes of CNN’s debut of Piers Morgan Tonight on Monday. Accordingly, I will refrain from judgment. Except to say there is something a little grating when an interviewer’s final question is: “How did I do?” (He was “surprising,” according to Ms. Winfrey.)

And what was with that Oprah-esque setting—you gave her a kind of soft-focus plush-couch home court advantage.

And, and, and that green?!

Oh wait… refraining from judgment. Right.

Anyway, others managed to tune in for longer than I and the universal verdict seems to be: right host, wrong guest. Morgan, a former editor of UK tabloid the Mirror, winner of The Celebrity Apprentice, and judge on America’s Got Talent (apparently not enough to find someone to fill King’s chair), is a smart guy. He did his research, and asked all the right questions. He’s even likable when he’s not bashing the Australian cricket team on his Twitter account. Ahem.

But Oprah is the queen—and if you listen to some of her responses, the second coming of Jesus—and all too expertly schooled Morgan on how to handle an interviewer such as he (and how he would better interview a guest such as she). On her most interesting subjects—Stedman, money, and yes, Gayle—she gave him almost nothing. Reading the reviews today, it feels like a case of “Where was Ricky Gervais when you needed him?”

Chris Rovzar at New York saw Oprah as the problem, try as Morgan might…

[Morgan] came across as polite and intelligent, and clearly does his homework. But his choice of Oprah Winfrey as his first guest was a drastic error. From the hotel room interview set—more Barbara Walters Fascinating People than anything resembling King’s familiar dark-room-and-desk setup—to his obsequious bowing and scraping, the interview with the reigning queen of TV made him look like a commoner.

… Nine minutes in, she was telling him exactly what he wasn’t going to get out of her, saying, “You’re wasting your time with the Stedman thing!” She talked directly to the camera… near the end of the interview, she just told him what question he should ask her. (It was, “What do you do best?” When Piers asked it, Oprah gave a canned, hokey answer.)

The Times’s Alessandra Stanley labeled Morgan “timid,” a charge he took particular offense to today on Twitter (does the man ever leave his feed alone?). Again, problem one was Winfrey.

Ms. Winfrey was an obvious choice as a first guest, but not a shrewd one. American audiences have seen an awful lot of Ms. Winfrey on television lately as she promotes her new cable network, OWN. And Ms. Walters had already gotten the most out of her, as Ms. Winfrey herself pointed out to Mr. Morgan. “This is the thing, I knew what Barbara was going after, she was going after the rumors, which I am never going to address again,” Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Morgan when he asked her what it was about Ms. Walters’ question about her friendship with Gayle King that had made her weep. (He played the clip as he asked.)

…Their exchanges didn’t reveal anything new about Ms. Winfrey, who skillfully played her host, pretending to be caught off guard by mostly banal questions. “Oh you’re good,” she purred several times. Towards the end, she threw him a bone by allowing her eyes to mist for a second while discussing a safe topic: her reverence for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even then, however, she made sure he didn’t make her cry—she did.

There was some “this could get better” from Dylan Stableford at The Wrap, who scores for most quotable line this morning.

But those moments came at the expense of fellating Oprah’s outsized ego (at one point Morgan compared Winfrey to the Queen of England, calling her the “queen” of America), interspersed with Harpo-supplied clips rendering the hour like an OWN infomercial….

…That’s not to say the show is doomed. Morgan is likable, and seems to have a knack for conversation, moreso than King’s, uh, blunt style.

Morgan’s hometown paper The Guardian chimed in too, giving a Brit-take on the new host’s first night. Hadlee Freeman’s review provides a little Morgan context for the American viewer.

To British viewers, Morgan seems like the protagonist from a satirical novel about the modern day media. Not even Henry Fielding would have dreamed of a character, brought so high, then so low, then so insanely high again, all by his own hubris. If there is a moral to the story of Morgan, it’s to never doubt yourself, no matter how many others do.

…While he may not have been wearing Larry King’s red braces, or sitting in King’s studio (instead, it was filmed in a cluttered hotel room with an unfortunate, strange horse statue behind Morgan on which the rider appeared to be about to plunge a spear into his skull) he didn’t entirely do away with all of his predecessor’s trappings. There was a definite lick of subservience to Winfrey that was wholly lacking from, say, Morgan’s interview with Katie Price on ITV.

For a glowing appraisal, see John Timpane at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Small victories are important Timpane reminds us, especially when you’re up against the likes of the one.

While you can’t say Morgan pried any big revelations out of Oprah, you can definitely say he “won” the encounter (if it were even a contest in the first place). That’s because, after a first segment that was clearly a draw, he got Oprah to banter and to leave, for brief moments, her perpetual scriptedness.

In the second segment, he knocked her off her mark, ever so slightly, with the question, exquisitely crafted, of “How many times have you been properly in love?” (Winfrey complimented him on the properly, and she rewarded it with an answer: three times, with two broken hearts.)

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,