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Television reviews: 'Finding Sarah' and 'Ryan and Tatum: The O'Neals'

Watching Sarah Ferguson on the road to self-discovery via the Oprah Winfrey Network is an exercise in absurdity. For a more honest — and fun — excursion, take in Ryan and Tatum O'Neal's travails.

June 11, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Sarah Ferguson is the subject of "Finding Sarah" which premieres June 19, on OWN< the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Sarah Ferguson is the subject of "Finding Sarah" which premieres… (OWN )

Strategically saving its two biggest headliner shows to fill the silence following the everything-but-fireworks finale of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) now debuts in quick succession "Finding Sarah" and "Ryan and Tatum: The O'Neals." Together, they neatly explain the dichotomy of Oprah-love and Oprah-bashing.

"Finding Sarah," which premieres on Sunday night, showcases the very worst of the Winfrey movement. Following Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, down the yellow brick road of self-discovery with Oprah-approved consultants — Dr. Phil McGraw as the Scarecrow and Suze Orman, the Tin Man — creates an Emperor's-new-clothes moment reminiscent of the episode in which Oprah built Kirstie Alley a gourmet kitchen. Just what she, you know, needed.

Trapped once again in debt and scandal (this time for accepting cash in exchange for access to former husband Prince Andrew) Ferguson decided to leverage her desire for a new life via reality TV. Never mind that, as she tells it, all her troubles were products of a very public life. Ferguson is a woman trained in nothing but the marketing of herself. Not surprisingly, Winfrey, muscling out any of Ferguson's native production companies, offered her personal-journey services to send Ferguson in search of her own self-worth.

We know this is what she is seeking because this is what she says with the mind-numbing regularity of Dorothy's plea to return home. "How do I find self-worth?" is not a question anyone can answer, but in the first of 13 episodes, McGraw and Orman don't even bother to try. When McGraw asks Ferguson what she was thinking when she promised to "open doors" to the royal family for cash, Ferguson immediately denies doing anything wrong. "My moral compass is so strong," she says with a completely straight face, "that if I thought I was doing anything wrong, I would have known."

As anyone who has ever lied to her therapist knows, this is not going to help at all. But Ferguson is not trying to figure out why she has made mistakes that have hurt many people, especially her two daughters who gamely appear in her defense. She wants to know why she "self-sabotages."

The two things "Finding Sarah" has going for it — Ferguson's undeniable personal appeal and the value of watching a Very British Person attempt to do a Very American Thing — is buried under sanctimony and the absurd vocabulary of self-help. Watching Orman, who confesses to not just loving but having a crush on herself, tell Ferguson that money is not the issue, but that the Duchess is "broken inside" makes one long for the gimlet eye of Charles Dickens. Putting Mr. Micawber's famous dictum — "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery" — on a Post-it somewhere in Ferguson's bathroom would no doubt be more effective than all of Orman's sympathy.

On "The O'Neals," premiering June 19, Ryan and daughter Tatum also avail themselves of OWN's camera crew to heal, in this case the years-long breach caused by Ryan's very bad parenting and Tatum's addiction issues. Mercifully, they each have a sense of humor about it. Also a little personal proportion. "You look great," Tatum tells Ryan at one point in the pilot. "It's makeup," he says with a shrug. "I was just doing 'Bones.'"

Having spent so many years in front of it, the two do not give the camera a second thought, which adds a welcome level of ease to the proceedings. They are also both funny, fierce and unapologetically warped. Ryan, who admits to dumping his young daughter after he fell in love with Farrah Fawcett, is one of those Irishmen who will charm the pants off you (literally, if you happen to be female) before blacking your eye and Tatum, all defensive wounds and subsequent spikes, is very much his daughter.

Her combination of outrage and anxiety over whether her father will show up at her 50th birthday party will resonate, no doubt, with far too many viewers, but what makes "The O'Neals" so refreshing is their obvious intelligence and their insistence on speaking English. (Tatum also has great friends who will say what she is thinking the few times she does not.)

Though both are actors with pasts that border on Hollywood satire, they appear more "real" than any other set of reality drama stars on TV today. No moral compasses here, no self-sabotage, no attempt to brand themselves with a phrase or a fist pump, just a very, very complicated family and fairly reasonable expectations. Tatum especially is clearly past hoping for miracles. She would just like things to be a little less crazy.

She and Sarah should have lunch, actually. And send the camera crew to the beach.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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