Editor’s note: Personally, I’ve always lumped Steven Tyler in with great transcendentalists like Thoreau, Emerson and Fuller. Tyler’s couplet, “Hey diddle diddle/With your kitty in the middle,” is canonical in its own special kind of way. And doesn’t Oprah own a modest log cabin in Telluride, the most serene place on earth? Everything below seems perfectly logical, really.
By Steve Johnson
There is a moment in the first episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” the new celebrity and spiritual travelogue starring Oprah Winfrey and also her interview subjects, that feels more like something out of “This Is Spinal Tap” than a star debriefing on an ostensible cable network for women.
At the end of two television hours (!) together, Winfrey and Steven Tyler, the flamboyant Aerosmith frontman and, more recently, “American Idol” judge, are in a forest in Tyler’s native Sunapee, N.H. They have hiked there to find a bed of moss where Tyler says he discovered his spirituality as a young man.
They sit down on the moss, these two superstars in their respective realms, and then they each sniff the moss. Winfrey holds her moss up to Tyler’s nose because hers, apparently, smells different. Tyler says something about the place reminding him of finding God in the music.
“I think God is not just in the music,” Winfrey tells the rocker, significantly. “I think God is the music.”
This assertion from Sunday’s premiere may or may not be true. (Was a supreme being really guiding the creation of Aerosmith’s teen-lust rave-up “Walk This Way”?) But the fragrance of forest moss and the talk of God do seem to be an essence of “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” the first wholly new series from Winfrey since her syndicated daytime program ended last May.
Preview episodes have not been sent out for review, an interesting move considering the channel it shows on, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, needs all the attention it can get. But publicity materials suggest this weekly series will be, more or less, Winfrey on a spiritual quest. And if that quest can somehow involve celebrities, so much the better.
Next Sunday night (9 p.m. EST) she visits megachurch preacher Joel Osteen. She’ll spend time among Transcendental Meditation practitioners in Iowa and Hasidic Jews in New York (she is shocked that they have never watched TV, she tells them), and she’ll visit with “Star Wars” impresario George Lucas.
None of this sounds like the kick in the pants Winfrey’s viewership-challenged cable network could use as it starts its second year. Religion is not, historically, a television ratings grabber, and in-depth celebrity interviews already exist on the networks, where the likes of Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer regularly convene their own Summits of the Bold-faced Names.
But the premiere, at least, did bring 1.1 million viewers, according to OWN _ the network’s second-highest rating ever (after the premiere of the reality show that went behind the scenes at “The Oprah Winfrey Show”). And it is certainly true that the Tyler interview comes close to justifying its extraordinary length via a combination of personal revelation, guided by Winfrey’s practiced albeit sometimes heavy hand, and those “Spinal Tap” moments.
Almost in spite of herself at times, she shows Tyler, in and around his Lake Sunapee retreat, as shaman and charlatan, showman and sap. And ever the silver-tongued charmer.
Tyler tells Winfrey “you and I are peripheral visionaries” and “you’re a magical being,” and Winfrey closes her eyes deeply to receive the compliment. In one moment he’s holding flowers she brought him from her home; in another he’s holding her hand or stroking the apparent raccoon tail that dangles, naturally enough, from his waist.
Then he removes a sock to show the gnarled toes that led him down one painkiller-and-other-drugs “rabbit hole.”
Whether schmoozing Oprah or flirting with teenaged “Idol” contestants, the man is good television. The show begins with Tyler rising, walking down to the boathouse, stepping up on a porch railing and plunging into the lake. Later, we see him doing Aerosmith yowls from out in a canoe, either to demonstrate the echoes or spark a neighbors’ petition drive. And he talks at length about the deep meaning of one Aerosmith lyric only to reveal that the song was written by ballad master Diane Warren.
There is plenty of talk of “American Idol” but not the revelations Tyler’s new fans from that show might want. He’s very happy there as his second season approaches, although he doesn’t like being critical, etc., etc.
He got into “Idol” because he was coming out of another rehab stint and needed something to do, he explains.
He’s preserved a text from ex-“Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi, with whom Tyler shares a songwriting partner, asking him to consider the show, which we see. “How’s the old rateing’s (sic),” he texted back. They’re better now that he’s on board.
Tyler’s old fans will learn that Aerosmith’s latest in a long string of rifts has apparently healed, and the band will tour together again. (Tyler says that although his bandmates didn’t want him to do “Idol,” “it did nothing but bring up Aerosmith’s sales 260 percent.”)
Winfrey does try to hold Tyler’s twisted feet at least near the fire for the irresponsible behavior that damaged many of the human relationships he says are so important to him. He admits, with sincere regret, to having “abandoned” his children to be on the road with the band, and to being lost in the “myopia” of drug addiction.
But for all the fascination provided by Tyler’s outsized personality and turned-up-to-11 life, things keep coming back to Oprah.
She interviews Tyler’s 33-year-old daughter Mia about feeling abandoned, as well as Tyler’s longtime squeeze and former band accountant, Erin Brady, about his monogamy or lack thereof.
After each delivers a touching anecdote about redemptive aspects of the rock star’s behavior, the producers let us see Winfrey clapping her hands in excitement at the television moment that has been created, telling them “that was great.”
It would be nice to think this is meant to give us a peek backstage, to reveal the artifice of the celebrity interview. But, really, it feels meant mostly to shift the spotlight back to Winfrey. If she can’t be the one doing the revealing, then she can at least be orchestrator and validator.
And in that way, at least, “Oprah’s Next Chapter” reads a whole lot like Oprah’s last chapter: a lot of well-made television, and a whole lot of the person making it.